BELFAST, Maine — It took seven months and more work than Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum wants to remember, but the city finally has a proposed budget that officials hope will calm anxious taxpayers while funding municipal business.
As it stands, the $8.68 million city budget reflects an increase of just $33,000 from the last fiscal year. When combined with Belfast’s share of the proposed Regional School Unit 71 budget, the community’s share of the Waldo County budget and the money from the city’s tax increment financing district, the budget totals about $16.3 million. That means the mill rate will rise from 21.65 to 22.40 — an increase of less than .4 percent.
If the amended city budget is passed this week by the Belfast City Council and if the RSU 71 budget is accepted by the district’s voters, it will mean property valued at $100,000 will see a $75 tax increase for the next fiscal year.
“This is unquestionably the tightest budget the city’s ever seen,” Slocum said Tuesday. “I don’t expect we’ll make any contributions to surplus. And the budget’s a plan. We’re not clairvoyant. There’s a lot of variables you can’t account for.”
He said the first version of the proposed budget created waves around the city when it was released at the end of June. That pricier draft, combined with a much more expensive school budget, added up to a mill rate of 23.41. Had those two budgets passed as initially proposed, property valued at $100,000 would have seen its taxes increase by $176.
“The community showed up and said ‘this is too much,’” Slocum said.
The Belfast City Council set a goal of cutting $250,000. With that kind of mandate, the city manager said everything was on the table. He was even considering closing the Belfast City Park swimming pool as a way to find a lot of savings in a hurry. But he reckoned without the councilors, who held a marathon budget workshop last Friday. They went through the budget line by line to find funding areas that could be whittled down further and managed to cut a quarter-million from the proposed budget.
“We’ve cut the rate a whole mill. It’s much better news,” Slocum said.
The biggest change that the public will notice in the municipal budget is that the price of disposing a bag of trash at the Belfast Transfer Station will increase from $2.50 to $3. That will generate nearly $25,000 in additional revenue for the city, Slocum said.
“The rest is small stuff,” he said of the budget cuts.
However, something larger that arose from the budget workshop was the sense among councilors that Belfast may be carrying too much of the costs of the region. For example, Slocum said, the city estimates that it pays $66 for every person who lives in Belfast to fund the Belfast Free Library. But if a resident of another town wants to pay for a library card, that only costs $25 per year. The city also is looking at renegotiating fire protection fees for the neighboring town of Swanville, which contracts with Belfast.
Slocum said he also is hoping there will be more attention paid to the school budget. The lion’s share of every property tax dollar funds local education, he said.