AUGUSTA — City councilors meet Saturday to set goals for the coming year, and some city officials say they will be a continuation of some of the bigger ones of 2013, including addressing crime issues.
Overall, the city did well meeting its goals last year, city officials said, though significant work remains to be done. Unfinished business includes exploring regionalization agreements with other communities, taking a closer look at crime and being more proactive fighting it in the city, and limiting tax increases in a time of shrinking revenues.
“It was a productive year,” said Mayor William Stokes. “We struggled with a very difficult budget situation, but I feel we came through that in relatively good fashion. We had a tax increase, which no one wants to see, but it was smaller than it could have been.”
In June councilors approved a $52.5 million school and city budget with a property tax increase of 3.4 percent. Earlier versions of the budget included a higher, 6.1 percent tax increase, and Stokes noted some area municipalities had tax increases of 9 percent or more.
One subgoal within councilors’ 2013 wish list was to work cooperatively with legislators, the school district and neighboring communities to address fiscal issues and explore regionalizing services, including the city contracting out services to neighboring communities to increase revenues and efficiency.
But the city seems to have lost, not gained, ground on that front.
Pittston, one of several communities which has for years contracted with Augusta to allow its residents’ trash to go to Hatch Hill landfill, left for a private company’s dump in West Bath. And Augusta nearly lost a contract to provide ambulance services in Hallowell, also to a private company, when Hallowell city councilors considered, but ultimately rejected, dropping Augusta’s ambulance service.
Stokes said City Manager William Bridgeo planned to attend a session that was held Wednesday night in Gardiner to discuss the potential for sharing services with other area municipal leaders.
Councilors had mixed results on their goal to be proactive, rather than reactive, in addressing public safety issues.
The city added one police officer position and two firefighter positions to help reduce pressure on public safety workers, Bridgeo said.
However, a goal to study the nature of crime and how it has changed in Augusta has not been met, according to Ward 1 Councilor Michael Byron.
A year ago at this time the city was reeling after nine pharmacy robberies, Stokes noted. Pharmacy robberies have dropped off, but Stokes said one of the reasons addicts didn’t rob as many pharmacies in 2013 year was the rise in the popluarity of heroin over the prescription drugs a pharmacy carries.
He cited the December arrest of 10 people on drug trafficking charges in his neighborhood, at 1 Penley St., as an example of that trend.
“The bad news is heroin is too easily available and, compared to prescription drugs, it’s cheap,” said Stokes, who is an assistant attorney general for the state. “We know we have out of state groups, gangs, coming here to sell drugs. Look at my street, Penley Street. The idea that there was a drug operation behind the city manager’s house, and up the street from the mayor whose office processes drug cases, is remarkable, the boldness of it. That’s the most troubling aspect to me, the heroin and its abundance in our city, in our state. It’s here.”
Byron said he plans to ask Saturday that having the police department study the nature of crime in Augusta and report its findings remains a goal for 2014.
Byron said more work also has to take place toward meeting councilors’ 2013 goal to address issues of poverty and hunger, particularly among children.
Bridgeo said in 2013 the dormant Community and Social Services Task Force was reactivated and met to discuss issues having an impact vulnerable residents, including those who are poor, homeless or dealing with mental health issues.
“I call that an evergreen goal,” Byron said. “You never stop needing to help people, so I’m going to talk about keeping that goal in place. We have to keep reaching out to our most vulnerable citizens. You can have all the great hospitals and libraries in the world, but you can’t be a great city if you have an underclass of citizens with needs not being met.”
Goals met or which saw significant progress over the year included, according to Bridgeo:
â€¢ securing the provision of natural gas to the city;
â€¢ securing a developer to redevelop the former MaineGeneral hospital site on East Chestnut Street;
â€¢ expanding use of CTV-7 television to improve communications
â€¢ completing design work and funding planned renovations to Market Square, with construction to begin in the spring;
â€¢ with a deal on the former Cony High School building on Cony circle expected to close in April, negotiating a long-term lease with the developer;
â€¢ advocating for the city’s interests to state legislators and other officials, particularly in support of tax reform proposals to increase revenue from sales taxes and fully fund state revenue sharing for municipalities.
City councilors meet 8 a.m. Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center for their annual goal-setting session, which is open to the public and is expected to continue into the afternoon.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647 [email protected]