AUGUSTA — The latest update to the proposed city and school budget adds a school resource police officer and half-time guidance and nursing positions at Hussey Elementary School, while reducing the property tax increase from 6.1 percent to 2.9 percent.
The budget also would waive the $21,000 in rent charged to the Augusta Boys & Girls Club for Teens for space at Buker Community Center, while incorporating projected savings in several areas and higher-than-projected state aid for education. It also relies more heavily on reserve money to lessen the impact on taxpayers.
City councilors praised the latest draft of the budget presented to them Thursday by Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, and James Anastasio, interim superintendent. Council could vote to approve the budget as soon as next Thursday.
Mayor William Stokes said the budget as now proposed would, if voters approve of a proposed bond to renovate and expand the city’s Lithgow Library and refinance future pension debt, give city residents a lot for their money. They would get a modernized library, a police officer at Cony High School who would occasionally visit the city’s elementary schools and needed guidance and nursing positions at Hussey.
In addition, the budget helps a Boys & Girls Club program that serves some 200 teenagers a year to continue its work, while limiting the impact on taxpayers.
“Look at this budget in its totality, if the referendum (on the Lithgow bond) passes, and consider what this city is going to get for its tax dollars,” Stokes said. “These are all items that impact children. Every penny we’re talking about here in upgrades, is going to our children and the children of our fellow citizens. For a tax increase of (52) cents on the mill rate.”
The revised budget would result in a tax rate of $18.67, up 2.86 percent over last year. It’s significantly lower than City Manager William Bridgeo’s proposed first draft of the budget, which would have raised taxes by 6.1 percent.
However, those budget numbers only work if voters approve the proposed, $15.6 million bond proposal at the June 10 referendum.
Of that total, $8 million would help fund the proposed, $11.7 million expansion and renovation of Lithgow, with private fundraising by the Friends of Lithgow expected to cover the rest.
And $7.6 million of the bond issue would refinance existing employee pension debt the city already owes.
It will cost the city more to pay off the pension debt over time, but the city will save money this year and for the next several years by having lower annual payments. The reduced annual payments on the pension debt would save the city about $56,000 and the school system about $146,000 a year, or a combined $202,000, compared to the current pension debt payments.
If the budget is passed as proposed, but voters don’t approve the bond proposal, the city would have to fill a $202,000 gap in the budget either by bumping the tax rate back up or tapping further into reserve funds.
Another major change to the budget since Bridgeo’s initial submission is an increase in revenues because of a $410,000 increase in the amount of state funding for Augusta’s schools.
St. Pierre and Bridgeo also propose to take $250,000 more from the city’s fund balance account, up to $600,000, from the account generally made up of funds unspent in previous years and reserved for emergencies.
Overall, the changes would require $773,000 less from taxpayers.
That’s despite the addition of some items to the budget, including $43,000 to hire a school resource officer who’d work for the police department but spend most of his or her time at Cony and other city schools.
Adding that position was a prime recommendation of a consultant’s study of the police department done in recent years, and a desire expressed previously by Police Chief Robert Gregoire.
However, when school officials proposed adding a school resource officer in 2002, parents objected and expressed concern about a uniformed, armed officer being at Cony, and the proposal was dismissed.
Stokes and Anastasio said they think public perceptions about the position have changed.
“We welcome police into our schools at any time and yes, we want the uniform, the total uniform,” which would include a firearm, Anastasio said. “I think the perception, the opposition to that, has disappeared. Not just at Cony, but in society in general.”
Stokes said school resource officers are one of the most effective tools there is for reducing juvenile delinquency, and preventing youths from growing up into adults who commit crimes and end up in prison.
Anastasio said Cony’s current security guards would be retained even if a school resource officer is hired, as they would perform different duties.
The budget also includes an additional $60,000 to create a half-time guidance position and half-time nurses position at Hussey, the only city elementary school without those positions, according to Anastasio.
And the budget removes $21,000 in revenues originally budgeted as rent payments from the Boys & Girls Club for its space at Buker. Bridgeo said the club has lost its affiliation with previous funder Spurwink Services and club officials asked the city to consider waiving its annual rent payment.
Multiple city officials said the club provides valuable services to some 200 teens.
Ward 4 Councilor Mark O’Brien said he is concerned the city could be setting precedent by not charging rent to the club that could open it up to requests from other non-profit groups for financial help from the city.
St. Pierre and David Rollins, at-large councilor, said the club fills a void in providing the services it does to teens, services there would be demand for in the city were it not for the club. Rollins also noted the waived rent may be a temporary arrangement, as he expressed hope the club will be able to get grant funding to help run its programs in the future.
Councilors could adopt the budget at their next meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, though Stokes said if councilors aren’t ready to adopt it then, they could delay the vote to May 29.
The Board of Education meets at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Capital Area Technical Center to consider changes to the school budget included in the new proposal.
Keith Edwards – 621-5647 | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @kedwardskj