HALLOWELL — City councilors gave initial approval Monday night to a budget that would raise property taxes more than 4 percent, but that could be pared down before it’s finalized.
The budget calls for $2.4 million in municipal spending in the 2015 fiscal year, which begins July 1. City projections say that, combined with an increase in the city’s share of school funding, would raise taxes 4.3 percent.
The budget must go through two more readings, and there is still room to reduce expenses if councilors choose to do so. Councilor Mark Sullivan, head of the council’s budget committee, said the body will reconsider the budget and try to whittle it down more, but said he couldn’t make any promises because the city is “getting down to the bone” financially.
However, to save money this year, councilors could delay parts of an ambitious capital improvement plan for 2015 that would use $286,000 to pave roads, install a culvert on Central Street and buy a pickup truck for the Public Works Department, among other things. Last year, the city spent only $133,000 on capital improvements.
Mayor Mark Walker said delaying those projects could be prudent, as part of Litchfield Road will be closed for up to five months starting in June because of a Maine Turnpike overpass replacement and Summit Natural Gas of Maine plans to install service lines to city residences this summer.
Postponing just one paving project on Summer Street would save $70,000 this budget year. Walker said “the big unknown” in the budget process is how the city coordinates with Summit to schedule road projects. But at the Monday meeting, the city’s share of Regional School Unit 2’s budget was the hot topic.
The board of the kindergarten-through-grade 12 district serving Hallowell, Farmingdale, Richmond, Monmouth and Dresden recently gave initial passage to a $25.4 million budget that includes plans for construction, more laptops for students and new positions to help students with non-academic problems. It still has to go through information sessions and a regional meeting before it heads to the June 10 ballot.
It would be a 3.8 percent increase for the district from last year’s budget, but it would require 7.9 percent — or nearly $1 million — more from local taxes. About $300,000 of that is required because of a minimum tax rate set by the state. Hallowell’s share of the total increase would be about $190,000.
RSU 2 Superintendent Virgel Hammonds and school board Chairwoman Dawn Gallagher of Hallowell were grilled by councilors about the increase at the meeting. Councilor Lisa Harvey-McPherson was the lone vote Monday against approving the budget, saying it was solely because of the school budget hike.
On Tuesday, Hammonds said the district is “very mindful of any increases,” but new positions are based on needs in the district. For example, two districtwide positions would help students in special situations.
One, a behavior specialist, would train teachers to identify triggers and mitigate some students’ behavioral problems. Another, a family liaison, would try to tamp down truancy, helping families find state, local and private resources that can help with problems that are keeping them from getting children to school. Hammonds has said the position could be offset by increased state aid because of enrollment.
Hallowell’s 8-percent tax hike last year was largely a result of education spending. Walker said there is “great concern on the council” that the district will “come back year after year with increases.”
“I do understand they have needs, but at some point they have to balance those with the citizens’ needs,” he said.