May 24, 2018
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School, state, tax error driving Auburn budget

By Scott Taylor, Sun Journal

AUBURN, Maine — Three things are driving the city’s budget up this year, according to City Manager Clinton Deschene: school spending, state revenue cuts and an accounting error from last year.

Deschene said he hopes councilors will settle at least one question at Monday night’s meeting.

“My instinct is that you will see the council set a school budget because we have to vote on it,” Deschene said. “I’m recommending they set a number that we can send to the voters. There is some opportunity that the number for that budget could change, and there is some opportunity that they could leave it alone and just send it out to the voters as it is. I’m too new to tell you with any certainty what this council is inclined to do.”

Monday’s meeting and a public hearing on the budget are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.

The proposed budget would mean a $3 million increase for both city and schools and a $2 million increase in overall property tax collections. It represents a $271 increase on a home valued at $150,000.

City spending, compared to the current 2012-13 fiscal year, would increase from $36.4 million to $37 million. At 1.68 percent, that’s just under the 1.7 percent goal councilors set for the budget.

Spending on education is up 6.9 percent in the proposed budget compared to the current plan. Combined with lower state revenue sharing and reductions in other state funding to the city, the tax rate would rise by $1.81 per $1,000 of value. And state revenue sharing is not set yet. Legislators could come back later this year and adopt a state budget that requires Auburn to cut even more.

“There are too many hypothetical questions at this point,” Deschene said.

Last year’s $1.7 million tax rate error is another problem. Auburn set its property tax rate 86 cents lower than it should have in the 2012-13 property tax collection. Based on those numbers, the city collected $39.4 million in property taxes, not the $41.1 it had budgeted.

The city froze spending this spring instead of collecting that money to make up the difference. It won’t be collected, but Deschene said this year’s budget calculations are based on the full amount. That means that the tax bills residents see this year will be higher than the ones they saw last year by 86 cents per $1,000 of value based on the error alone.

“The reality is we are using up funds in our fund balance to weather this storm,” Deschene said. “Is this something we could do again? No way. If this mistake were ever to come up again, we’d be in major problems.”

Councilors are scheduled to settle the entire budget Monday night. That involves approving a five-year capital plan, budgets for both the city and schools and sending the school budget to voters for a June 11 referendum.

Deschene said the agenda also includes discussions about resurrecting a city emergency medical response service and funding July 4 celebrations.


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