FORT KENT, Maine — SAD 27 residents are facing double digit property tax increases thanks to the $12.8 million fiscal year 2015-16 budget they passed Tuesday night at the district budget meeting.
The budget moves on to a referendum vote on June 9.
The proposed budget represents an overall 3 percent increase from last year, but it includes a 14 percent increase to the local share thanks to losses in revenue of $321,000.
Those losses, according to SAD 27 chief financial officer Lucie Tabor, stem from reductions in the state contribution and loss of revenue from the town of Winterville, which withdrew from the district last year.
Districtwide, the budget represents an average 1.94 mill increase among member towns Fort Kent, Eagle Lake, Wallagrass, New Canada, St. John and St. Francis, which will contribute a combined $1.7 million additional local funds, 14 percent more than the state recommends as a local share.
In all, residents approved $5.2 million in local funds.
Voters at the meeting did not support a move to cut those additional local funds by $306,000.
“For our budget to have no mill increase would be an additional $800,000 in cuts, and I am telling you right now, that will affect our kids,” said Tim Doak, district superintendent. “I’m not standing here telling you 1.94 mills is a good thing, but right now, that is what it will take to save our kids and our programs for another year.”
The SAD 27 board of directors had originally proposed a $13.6 million fiscal year 2015-16 budget, representing a 10 percent increase over last year and a 3.86 mill increase.
“We just couldn’t do that,” Doak said. “So we went back to the drawing board.”
The board was ultimately able to find $803,000 in cuts to salaries, staff, purchases, professional development and by turning the St. Francis Elementary School over to that town to get to the $12.8 million budget, which is an increase of $392,000 over last year, Tabor said.
Winterville’s 8 percent of the budget had to be redistributed among the remaining member towns after its withdrawal.
The loss of Winterville is mitigated somewhat by the town tuitioning its 20 students to SAD 27, but it still represents a $200,000 net loss to the district, Tabor said.
SAD 27’s enrollment is projected to be at 904 next year, which is an 11 percent drop over the last five years, Tabor said.
In the last 10 years, as enrollments have steadily declined, the district has lost 51 full-time positions, she said.
This year SAD 27 will receive $5.7 million from the state based on the funding formula, and the district is asking an additional 14 percent from taxpayers.
That is $120,000 less than last year, Tabor said.
“You generally want to run 5 to 10 percent over what the state gives you,” Doak said. “Yes, ours is 14 percent, but the funding formula is not developed for rural areas like SAD 27.”
Transportation costs, he said for example, are much higher for rural districts where students are spread over a large geographic area than in more urban centers. The funding formula does not take that — and the associated transportation costs — into account, he said.
Doak said he is aware any increases to mill rates means increases to taxes.
“As I stand here as superintendent of schools, my first priority is the students,” he said. “Then we look at teachers and programs and then we look at taxpayers. It would be easy to look at taxes first, but my job is to make sure kids have the best classes and programs.”
Eagle Lake Town Manager Sandra Fournier said she is not sure her town can sustain continued tax increases.
The 20 percent rise this year is on top of 14 percent tax increase last year, she said.
“This is significant,” Fournier said earlier in the day. “We need to force SAD 27 to re-evaluate their budget by our voting it down, [and] we have to hope we are heard.”
Eagle Lake officials will hold a school budget informational meeting 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Eagle Lake Elementary School gymnasium, Fournier said.
“If our taxes go up more and we can’t pay, then what will you do?” said one resident. “Our salaries have not gone up.”
Neither have SAD 27 teachers seen wage increases, said Lorie Voisine, high school English teacher.
“We have made a lot of sacrifices,” she said. “We cut and cut, and we are working our tails off, [and] any more cuts to our staffing will seriously impact students, and I don’t think you want that.”
No one does, said district resident Dana Saucier.
“But there are people having a hard time paying their taxes now before a 20 percent increase,” Saucier said. “We have to take a look at the reality we are dealing with and at creative alternatives.”
Crafting a budget with no increase over last year is possible with an additional $800,000 in cuts, said Barry Ouellette, SAD 27 board chair.
“But your kids will be affected,” he said. “We built a budget we feel is in the best interest of the kids, [and] we know it is on the backs of the taxpayers, but at some point, Augusta is going to have to wake up and change the funding formula.”
That is not going to happen, said Don Guimond, Fort Kent town manager.
Continued budget increases with the associated increases to property taxes are a disaster for SAD 27 residents, Guimond said.
“People will not be able to afford it,” he said. “If you were the tax collector as I am, you would recognize the difficulties, [and] it is a disaster, and you need to recognize that.”
The situation is getting out of hand, according to resident Arthur Carol.
I took a 30 percent cut in my business one year and I survived,” he said. “I am sorry people, but we have reality staring us in the face, and it is not sustainable.”