AUGUSTA — City councilors on Thursday approved a $59.3 million budget, which is expected to increase taxes by just under 3 percent.

Councilors narrowly rejected a last-minute proposal from At-large Councilor Corey Wilson to give $110,000 to the Police Department to create a drug offender diversion program.

Wilson proposed to give the money to the department for a program in which low-level drug offenders accused of a drug-related crime in the city would be able to have the charges against them dropped if they complete substance abuse treatment.

The proposal would have been similar to one based on a model used in Seattle. It would have been created by a state grant program that the city and other southern Kennebec County communities applied for but didn’t receive.

“I believe this could be a small piece of addressing the epidemic (of opiate addiction) we’re facing,” Wilson said. “We hear, from the Police Department, Fire Department, and read in the paper every day, about another drug overdose. I think all the council would agree, that’s not what we want in our community.”

About $94,000 of the money would be used by the city to contract with a substance abuse expert to oversee the program and follow each participant’s progress and report back to police and the District Attorney’s Office. The remaining money would be used to provide individual “scholarships” of $1,000 in financial aid to participants without insurance or otherwise unable to pay for substance abuse treatment.

Councilors rejected the proposal in a 4-3 vote.

Councilors said they had too many unanswered questions about how the program would work, and some said such substance abuse treatment oversight should be provided by the state, not municipalities.

“It’s amazing that in six years we’ve gone from being one of the states at the forefront of health care and getting treatment for our citizens to now, each little town having to figure out what they’re going to do,” said At-large Councilor Marci Alexander. “I think it’s a good idea, but I don’t think we’re ready yet to give any appropriation. I think the state has to wake up and do a program like this before someone else dies of an overdose.”

Councilors approved the overall budget, without funding for the new drug diversion program, in a 6-1 vote, with Wilson opposed.

The spending plan is reduced from City Manager William Bridgeo’s initially proposed budget, which would have required a tax rate increase of 5.23 percent.

Despite the tax rate increase, city officials note that changes to the state Homestead Exemption program, which allows homeowners to reduce the taxable valuation of their primary residences, mean homeowners who qualify for it would see their property taxes decrease, as long as their home is worth $184,000 or less.

Owners of commercial properties or second homes in the city are not eligible for the Homestead Exemption and would thus see the full 2.96 percent property tax rate increase proposed in the budget.

The amount that can be reduced from a home’s valuation, for tax purposes under the Homestead Exemption, increased this year from $15,000 to $20,000.

Spending in the proposed budget is up $1.3 million over the current year’s budget, a 2.25 percent increase.

Recent changes to the budget included the addition of $34,000 to the snow removal account, to pay for two additional seasonal drivers to plow snow in the winter. That, St. Pierre said, would be accompanied by a policy change stating that during snowstorms the Public Works Department may stop rubbish collection to focus workers on snow removal, which would free up two more drivers and four laborers for snow removal.

The city received complaints this winter about some streets and sidewalks not being plowed in a timely manner.

Councilors also agreed to add $12,000 to the solid waste budget, to make changes meant to address some residents’ concerns that single-sort recycling bins in the city often fill up with recyclables on weekends.

St. Pierre said the $12,000 will allow the public works depot on North Street to open on Saturdays for single-sort recycling, from 8 a.m. to noon for 30 weeks in the spring, summer and fall. And the money also will pay for the city to hire a contractor to make additional runs to ecomaine with the full containers. It will also pay to have an additional container on hand, which is meant to decrease the likelihood the recycling containers will fill up on weekends.

The budget also incorporated changes to projected revenue and expenses made since the budget was first proposed, which, taken together, reduce the amount of money needed from taxpayers by about $470,000.

Those changes included a $300,000 decrease in health insurance costs for school employees, a $40,000 decrease in Augusta’s share of the Kennebec County budget, a potential $58,000 decrease in the city’s increased costs because of a proposed Greater Augusta Utility District stormwater rate increase, and a $110,000 increase in revenue sharing from the state based upon recent state projections.

The property tax rate is now $19.79 for every $1,000 of property valuation. It is expected to be $20.38 next year, with the approval of the proposed budget.

The budget faced little opposition during the roughly two-month review process, with no residents coming out to speak for or against it at a public hearing in May.

The budget drew only one public comment Thursday before the council’s vote, from resident Brad Sawyer.

“I have a fairly unorthodox comment. I’d like to say thank you,” Sawyer said. “I know you, and city staff, work very hard on this. I know everyone would like to get to zero (for a budget increase), but I know you can’t always do that. Many people in this town know you work very hard. So I just want to say thank you.”

While the city budget required only Thursday’s vote by councilors for approval, the school budget still awaits approval by voters in a referendum, scheduled for June13.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj