AUGUSTA — City officials want to do a better job communicating with the public, from highlighting the recent success of the downtown to finding ways to make council meetings interactive.

That was the overarching theme of a daylong meeting of councilors and city staff members Saturday. Councilors heard updates about schools, police, fire, utilities, economic development and the budget.

While they discussed the nitty-gritty of things such as city finances — revenue is flat and less money is expected to come from the state — they spent considerable time talking about the city’s reputation.

“The perception of our community from outside the fence isn’t what we want it to be,” Councilor David Rollins said.

Or as Mayor Bill Stokes put it: “There’s a stigma attached to Augusta and the schools.”

What’s the answer?

City Manager Bill Bridgeo said he’ll need to find a way within existing city resources to do a better job with public relations. He agreed that the city gets a “bum rap that we’re not business-friendly.”

Councilors discussed upgrades to the city website, starting Facebook and Twitter accounts and putting out news releases to highlight improving test scores at schools, successful businesses and efforts to revitalize the downtown. Mike Duguay, the city’s development director, cautioned that city officials already have limited time and said that the city needs to consider carefully how much it puts itself, and its staff, out in front of the public.

Bridgeo said he’d get a full plan of goals to the council in the coming weeks, including ideas about how best to communicate with the public.

That list also will include ideas about prioritizing the needs of key buildings, including the Kennebec Arsenal property, the Cony flatiron building, the former Statler mill site, the Colonial Theater and the MaineGeneral Medical Center hospital building, which will become vacant when the hospital moves to the northwest part of the city in two years. Some council members expressed interest in expanding water and sewer service to the Riggs Brook area, which is on the east side of the Kennebec River near Churchill Road and Route 3. However, the $3 million cost continues to be an issue, Bridgeo said.

To help city residents better understand city finances, Councilor Mike Byron suggested putting together palm cards that make it easy to understand what city services cost. As they get ready to consider the budget for next year, city officials already know that Superintendent Cornelia Brown has proposed a 4.26 percent tax increase.

Stokes said cuts at the state level will continue to make it harder for cities and towns to pay the bills.

“State politicians see it as we’re spending too much, we’re too generous,” he said. “At the city level, we see an increased demand for services. The expectation is that we will provide services promptly. Even before the snow starts flying, we’re supposed to plow.”

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]

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