BRUNSWICK, Maine — Town Manager John Eldridge presented preliminary budget adjustments last week that could keep property tax increases associated with municipal spending below 3 percent.
At the April 16 Town Council budget workshop, Eldridge stressed that his adjustments are not formal proposals or recommendations, but a way to facilitate discussion around creating the final fiscal 2016 budget.
The current proposed property tax increase, based solely on department requests, stands at 3.62 percent, or about $1.4 million. The manager’s highlighted cuts could limit that increase to 2.31 percent, or about $865,000.
“The council’s mind, as I understood it, was to minimize an increase in taxes as much as possible,” he said. He said he hoped to leave the meeting with more specific direction as to where the council wanted to pursue limiting increases, and where to prioritize spending.
Some of the reductions Eldridge highlighted were leaving an open position vacant at the police department, cutting the requested expenditures for road paving by $50,000, and limiting an increase in legal fees.
Eldridge also pointed to a possible cost reduction in the town’s contract with Pine Tree Waste by taking additional tons at the town’s landfill. The landfill, he noted, needs to close soon, and additional waste might hinder the development future of the site.
He also showed how increases could be cut by limiting funding to town-supported organizations like People Plus, Curtis Memorial Library, and the Brunswick Downtown Association.
Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman said there are “two ways” to move forward. One would be to provide Eldridge with a fixed tax rate increase target, she said. The other would be to highlight services the community wants to maintain.
Councilors leaned toward a strict cap on the tax increase, but some expressed concern over the services that could be lost.
Councilor John Perreault said he would like to see what the numbers look like for keeping all spending the same as last year, except for contractual increases. He said he “will not support anything over 3 percent, that’s both school and town, and that’s just me.”
Councilor Kathy Wilson said she had to take into account the priorities of her constituents, and this year taxes are the “No. 1 concern.” She said she wanted as minimal an increase as possible in the property tax.
“I do believe it could be painful here and there,” she said.
Councilor Dan Harris agreed the town is in “rough financial shape,” and that he would oppose any expenditures on capital programs except those “absolutely necessary” to public safety and maintenance.
He expressed support for a town property tax revaluation, saying it was a “real” capital improvement, and suggested it could be funded by a bond.
“I would hate to cut personnel,” he added.
Brayman stressed that there are services the town provides, like snow removal, that would be much more expensive for residents if obtained from private contractors. In looking at the next round of spending adjustments, she said she wanted more context “to see what it all means.”
Eldridge said part of the current spending pressure is attributable to reductions in financial support from the state.
Most significantly, he said the state school subsidy has fallen from about $14.5 million in 2008-09 to just under $10 million in 2014-15. In the same period, state revenue sharing with the town has fallen from $2 million to just under $1 million last year.
Eldridge said that even though Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature are still grappling with the revenue sharing program in the state budget process, his office is not expecting much of an increase, and is working around a projected revenue share similar to last year’s.
Harris said he believed “the state is balancing its budget at the expense of property taxpayers.”
Wilson echoed that she did not think this year’s municipal budget could “pick up the slack” for all the state funding that has been lost.
“The state has created a gap for us,” Councilor David Watson added. “For Brunswick, in particular, (this) is particularly traumatic because of the loss of funding the Navy gave us” when Brunswick Naval Air Station was closed, he said.
“We need to continue sharpening our pencils and work harder,” he said.
The council will meet again on Monday, April 27, to continue finalizing the municipal budget.