AUGUSTA — The proposed $51.5 million city and school budget would raise property taxes by 3.5 percent while shouldering a larger welfare burden, paying significantly more in sewer fees, closing Bicentennial Nature Park and eliminating a police patrol position.

The city’s $23.2 million share of the budget is up $1.2 million, or 5.5 percent, over the current year, although that increase is partially offset by $777,000 in anticipated increases in municipal revenues.

City Manager William Bridgeo said several factors leave the city with little choice but to raise taxes and scale back services.

“When the state is cutting general assistance, cutting education funding and revenue-sharing is being slashed, and when people, rightly, say they don’t want their property taxes to go up, you’re left in a land of bad choices,” Bridgeo said.

The budget as proposed by Bridgeo and released Thursday goes to the City Council for discussion, public comment, possible changes and likely adoption by late May.

One of the largest drivers of the increase in municipal spending is a $623,000 increase in sewer, stormwater and fire protection costs, because of a Greater Augusta Utility District rate increase. The city is the district’s biggest customer.

Bridgeo, however, said that increase will be paid for with proceeds from the city’s downtown tax increment financing district, part of the projected $777,000 increase in revenues.

Another major proposed increase would more than triple spending on general assistance, or welfare, from $123,000 to $455,000 — a $332,000 increase. That increase is to brace for both enacted and anticipated changes in how the state funds welfare, Bridgeo said.

Bridgeo anticipates the city’s general assistance costs will increase dramatically because of state cuts. The state is expected to reimburse the city for half of the increase.

One proposed budget cut was last considered in 2010 but rejected by city councilors at the time, closing Bicentennial Nature Park, a popular city-owned beach and swimming area on Three Cornered Pond in the northeast section of the city, saving about $40,000.

Bridgeo said creating the park was one of the first things he was involved with when he became city manager, and it pains him to recommend not opening it this summer. But with so many fixed expenses elsewhere, there is little else to cut to avoid a larger tax increase, he said.

Bridgeo said after fixed costs are accounted for “that leaves you around $2.5 million in more discretionary expenditures which generally are the quality of life expenditures the government provides — the library, parks, recreation programs — that people love.”

Proposed spending for the police department is up by $167,000, or 4.3 percent, despite plans to leave a patrol position unfilled because of an officer’s retirement. The increase is primarily because of contractual salary and benefit increases, Bridgeo said.

Ralph St. Pierre, assistant city manager and finance director, noted the budget anticipates no increase in the overall valuation of property in the city, because of a lack of new development and some property being torn down or sold to nonprofit organizations.

The budget includes no city shutdown days. Last year, the city had four shutdown days, during which most city departments don’t open and staff don’t get paid.

“The problem with shutdown days is the work doesn’t go away,” St. Pierre said.

The Augusta Board of Education approved the school’s $26.8 million share of the budget Wednesday night. The school budget is $106,000, or about 0.4 percent, lower than the current year, but would require a tax increase of about 2 percent, largely because of decreased revenues.

City councilors may order changes to the school budget, which will also go to voters citywide in a June 12 budget validation referendum.

The public works budget is up $51,000, or 1.5 percent. Bridgeo said he could easily justify putting an additional $500,000 in the public works budget — if the money were available.

“Every time it snows or we have an ice situation, we get complaints — all kinds of them — from residents,” he said. “The roads aren’t plowed fast enough, there isn’t enough sand or salt on the roads, the sidewalks aren’t plowed soon enough,” he said. “All those frustrations, which are shared by public works, are tied to money. We just don’t have the money.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]


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