WATERVILLE — The Waterville Board of Education on Monday narrowly approved using $150,000 of school surplus money to help ensure the tax rate does not increase as part of the 2014-15 municipal and school budget.
School Superintendent Eric Haley told the board that City Manager Michael Roy proposes using that surplus money, as well as $355,000 in savings from a proposed pay-as-you-throw trash/recycling system and $30,000 from not funding some outside agencies, to maintain the current $27.40 tax rate for 2014-15.
Haley, who is superintendent of Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which includes Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro schools, said Roy told him the city budget is a little more than one million dollars out of balance, the tax rate has increased the last two years, and the city’s plan would maintain the current tax rate.
The city used $1.4 million in surplus last year, but this year plans to use only $1 million of surplus, Haley said.
Roy also is confident the city can increase excise tax revenue by $50,000 and save $45,000 in health insurance costs, as they were not as high as projected, Haley said.
The City Council has not yet approved the-pay-as-you-throw trash disposal system, so a $355,00 annual savings from the program is not a given.
On Tuesday, the council is scheduled to hear presentations by WasteZero and Ecomaine, two companies the city would contract with if the council approves the pay-as-you-throw program. City Manager Michael Roy said Monday that he does not know when the council will vote on whether to approve the program, but he recommends it pass and be put in place by September.
School board members Maryanne Bernier, Sara Sylvester and Tiffany LaLiberty voted Tuesday to approve the plan aimed at not increasing the tax rate. Board members Joan Phillips-Sandy and Pamela Trinward both abstained. Chairman Lee Cabana, who has been ill, and board member Elizabeth Bickford, were not at the meeting.
The proposed municipal and school budget for 2014-15 is $38.4 million, about a $1.1 million increase from the $37.2 million budget for 2013-14.
The proposed school budget is $20.7 million, a 2.36 percent, or $478,176 increase from the 2013-14 budget, with most of the increase driven by fixed costs, including insurances and salaries.
Haley said schools got $807,000 more than last year in general purpose aid.
Opposing the plan to maintain the tax rate by using school surplus money, Trinward cautioned that the schools have a much larger budget than the city’s and a much smaller surplus, or undesignated fund balance.
The city, she said, did not cut its budget, the schools cut $758,000 and now the school board is decreasing its surplus by what any accounting firm would say is a serious hit.
“It’s actually called digging a great big hole without a ladder,” Trinward said.
Phillips-Sandy said she is concerned that the schools have not yet settled contracts. She said she shared Trinward’s concerns about curtailments, and noted that no one knows what the state Legislature will do in the future.
“The city is kind of gambling on the pay-as-you-throw thing and I don’t know if it’s definite,” Phillips-Sandy said.
Haley said he agrees with pay-as-you-throw. “Now, there’s a financial incentive for people to recycle because you don’t get charged for it, curbside,” he said.
With a pay-as-you-throw system, residents would buy special trash bags at stores for curbside garbage pickup, but also have curbside recyclng.
“You don’t have to have seven containers in your garage and you don’t pay for it,” Haley told the board, adding that if residents do something with their organic trash, such as composting it, that reduces their trash even further.
When the city’s contract with Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. in Orrington expires in 2018, he said, the city’s cost to dispose of trash could triple, and the city must do something to reduce the amount of trash it generates, Haley said. Waterville’s trash is taken to the Oakland transfer station where it is then hauled to PERC.
But Phillips-Sandy said if pay-as-you-throw does not pass, the city would have to raise taxes.
Haley, Bernier and others said the goal of not raising taxes is laudable. Trinward was not convinced that using school surplus was the right way to go.
“I’d feel better if it was a shared sacrifice,” she said, referring to school versus municipal budget cuts. “I feel that the school’s been cutting and cutting and cutting.”
Phillips-Sandy asked Haley if Roy feels the city council will vote to approve the plan for no tax increase if the school board approves it.
“I didn’t ask him, but my impression is yes, that this is a plan the City Council could support,” Haley replied.
Haley said he would have to rethink his support for the plan if the council decided to increase taxes. At that, Phillips-Sandy said if the city has to raise taxes because the proposal falls apart, she would say she wanted the schools’ $150,000 in surplus back.
“I’m just not convinced they can pass this pay-as-you-throw thing,” she said, to which Haley replied, “I made it clear that this is contingent on no new tax increase.”
In other matters Tuesday, Haley reported that AOS 92 Assistant Superintendent Peter Thiboutot, who was injured April 25 in a fall from a ladder while cutting a tree limb at his China home, is improving.
Thiboutot was taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland after the accident, in which he broke ribs and suffered a Class 3 concussion after falling about 20 feet, Haley said.
Haley, who visited Thiboutot April 26 in Portland, said Tuesday that he is recovering at home now and anxious to return to work.
“I don’t want him to rush coming back,” Haley said.