WATERVILLE — The city faces a tough budget battle this year as many residents pack City Council meetings to insist the tax rate not be increased while others urge councilors not to cut funding to schools as that would erode the quality of education and hurt students.

As the City Council edges closer to deciding how much money it will allow for the municipal and school budgets, officials say they will have to make tough decisions that won’t be easy.

School Superintendent Eric Haley says this is by far the worst financial scenario he has seen, and if schools do not get funding for the proposed $21.8 million school budget — which represents a $674,172 increase, or a 3.18 percent hike from the current budget — positions will have to be cut.

“I’m absolutely sure of that,” Haley said Tuesday. “We’d be down to a very basic curriculum with higher class sizes. Right now this is the worst I’ve ever seen.”

The City Council is expected to take a first vote June 20 on the proposed municipal and school budgets and a final vote in early July unless the council decides to hold a special meeting before July 1.

Haley said the Waterville Board of Education likely would take its first vote on the school budget June 14. After that, city and school officials would meet to discuss the budget, and then the council would make a final decision about how much the schools will get for the school budget. After the council makes that decision, the school board takes a final vote, likely in July.

Increases in the school budget are reflected in salaries, oil prices, special education and other costs. The proposed school budget includes $535,000 in cuts from an earlier proposal and the schools lost $400,574 in revenue. Last year, the schools used about $500,000 in surplus money to help fund the budget and the schools have no surplus left.

While the schools have been told they will get $11.9 million in state subsidy, the state Legislature has yet to decide whether it will approve Gov. Paul LePage’s 48 recommendations for changes to funding for essential programs and services and some of those changes could help the schools and some could hurt, Haley says.

Anxiety over funding issues is high and building.

“This is just an unbelievable year,” Haley said. “Everybody’s fractured over it. Everybody’s emotionally spent, worn out, frustrated. I keep reminding people, we don’t want to start circling the wagons and shooting inside. I have principals who want to hire people for openings, but we can’t hire people and then let them go.”

Meanwhile, residents who are part of a group that calls itself the People’s Council have been urging city officials to keep the city tax rate at $22.80 per $1,000 worth of valuation.

“The People’s Council is not after a school budget reduction — it’s about looking at the entire city for ways to cut and streamline and just to be more competitive and behave like the private sector does,” resident Julian Payne said, adding that workers in the private sector do not get automatic salary increases each year.

City Manager Michael Roy said the council has not yet reviewed all proposed city department budgets and the next step will be considering possible budget reductions, so a final proposed budget total for the municipal side of the budget has not yet been determined. Also, city officials do not know exactly how much Waterville will get from the state this year, but they hope to know by the end of June.

Roy said he is concerned about the budget in that city officials have purposely left out in prior year budgets some needed capital improvements and road improvements.

“I’m concerned with the long-term view that if we decide again to balance the budget this year by eliminating equipment repairs or replacements and reduce the amount of road improvements, it will cost us more in the long run,” he said.

TWO SIDES OF THE BATTLE

The city and schools must think outside the box to trim costs and become more efficient, as they can not continue to spend more than they take in and residents on fixed incomes can not continue to pay higher taxes, according to Payne.

“I can’t say it enough — they’re killing the goose laying the golden egg,” Payne said.

If the tax rate increases, the city will not be able to be competitive commercially and residentially with surrounding communities that have lower tax rates, Payne says. He also worries that increased taxes will devalue homes, as people must reduce the price of their homes if they want to entice buyers.

Eliza Mathias, a former city councilor and planning board member who is a member of the group Friends of Waterville Public Schools, worries that the school budget may not get the funding schools need and therefore positions will be cut and class size will increase. As a parent of two children in school, she said a city can not attract young families and draw young people who grew up in Waterville to return by cutting funding to schools.

“I think families are definitely concerned about cuts to education and making sure that Waterville schools maintain the growing level of quality we’ve had over decades,” Mathias said. “I think it’s important that we not look to balance the budget at the expense of our children.”

Two teachers exit the Albert Hall School in Waterville on Tuesday. Some residents are calling for the closure of the school as soon as possible to save money amid a declining student population, but officials say the process would take about three years. Staff photo by David Leaming

She believes that when families consider moving to a community, they do not look just at the tax rate — they look at the quality of education. With downtown revitalization efforts ongoing, people will be looking to move to the city, but if it does not invest in schools, they will not come, she said.

“We’re not going to grow our tax base by cutting schools,” she said.

Paul Lussier, a developer who builds homes off Shores Road, said everyone in the People’s Council wants good schools, library and city departments but the city needs to contain some of its costs.

“If you agree the city is in a financial mess, how do we get out of it?” Lussier asks. “I like to use the term ‘constructive reconstruction.’ In other words, reorganization.”

Lussier suggests the schools do things such as hire people with lesser educational degrees who would be paid less money than those with a masters or doctorate.

“I’m not saying the schools should stop hiring qualified people, but $10,000 here and $10,000 there — pretty soon it starts adding up,” Lussier said. “When my kids were learning to play an instrument, I think they would have learned just as much from somebody who has a bachelor’s degree.”

EDUCATION MATTERS

Like Payne, Lussier said the schools could pursue closing the Albert S. Hall School to save money. If Waterville were to predict a boon in population, maybe it would make sense to hold off on exploring closing the school, he said.

“If it might take 30 years for the population to start increasing, for people to start moving into Waterville,” he said. “By that time, the Hall School is even older and in need of replacement, so close it now.”

Lussier, who is chairman of the city’s Planning Board and a former code enforcement officer in Oakland and Waterville, said his housing development on the Waterville-Oakland town line has about 62 houses, most of which are in Waterville, but the tax rate is vastly different in the two communities. Oakland’s tax rate is $15.67. While the houses are exactly the same, the Waterville residents pay a lot more in taxes.

“They are not happy about it, and I have built homes virtually across the street from each other. That’s a tough pill to swallow.”

Scott Jones, a parent and financial expert who did a presentation on budgets this spring at Waterville Senior High School, said Waterville is at the bottom of the list for the state in terms of per pupil costs. He says he is sympathetic to those who say the tax rate is high and an increase would present a problem, but one must look at the numbers, which show the amount of money Waterville taxpayers have given to schools in the last 10 years has actually decreased, not increased, when one factors in inflation.

“If you look at the money for 2017, the city of Waterville residents on property taxes gave $6,775,925. That’s the dollars residents of Waterville provided to schools in the current budget.”

He said that in 2005, residents provided $6,818,458.

“In 2013, it was slightly higher than 2017, at $6,792,402.”

If the budget is flat-funded, the city would actually be buying less with its dollars than it did in 2005 because of inflation, according to Jones.

“It’s the same thing with you and your budget. If you had the same paycheck in 2005 as today, you’d be in a bad position,” he said. “We, the citizens of Waterville, have not given the school budget an increase in close to 17 years.”

As far as the idea of closing the Hall School, Jones says that could be a benefit, but he does not have the data.

“I don’t know what it takes to decommission a school, but you can’t do it in two months.”

Haley has said the process for closing a school takes about three years.

‘A BRIGHT FUTURE’

Meanwhile, Mayor Nick Isgro said people are working hard on the budget, and he believes the city will not increase the tax rate.

Nick Isgro

“The majority of councilors I have talked to do not have the appetite for raising taxes this year,” he said.

An argument Isgro said he wants to put to rest is the idea that people who do not want their taxes to increase every year are anti-school.

“That’s not the case,” he said. “I’m not talking about the People’s Council; I’m talking about people on the street. Anyone I’ve talked to who said we just don’t want taxes to go up have not said to me I really think we have a bloated school budget. I think there’s a healthy appreciation for where we’re at and we will get through it and I’m very optimistic about Waterville’s future. There are great things happening and we will get there. We have a bright future, but we also need to be willing to have backbone to trudge through this and work together to get to where we’re going.”

He said the tax base will grow as downtown revitalization continues, CGI employs more people and the Interstate 95 interchange at Trafton Road is developed. Colby developments alone downtown are expected to bring $140,000 annually in new tax revenues, he said.

“These are all great things, but in the meantime we can’t tax everyone out while we’re working on these things,” Isgro said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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Twitter: @AmyCalder17