AUGUSTA — A $51.4 million city and school budget carrying a 1.46 percent tax increase and cuts, including a police patrol position and one of the few public swimming spots in the city, has won unanimous approval by city councilors.

Residents pleaded with councilors Thursday night to find a way to keep Bicentennial Nature Park open, but councilors said state and federal budget cuts have left the city with too many competing needs to add funding for the popular park back into the budget.

“The state is priding itself on making budget cuts, but what they don’t tell us is they’ve cut revenues to the cities and our municipal and education budgets,” said Councilor Patrick Paradis. “Now, here we are, the nine of us, to decide a budget that nobody is really in love with.”

Paradis said officials talked with the police chief about not cutting the patrol position — amounting to about $40,000 — and “that’s not a very easy decision to cut.”

“Now we have Bicentennial Park,” he said. “Many good people here really like it. No one on this council wants to close it; it’s a precious gem for the city. I guess we’ve angered everybody with this budget. But the alternative is to raise taxes more. And I don’t think that may be the right decision.”

Bicentennial Nature Park, a city-owned park on Three Cornered Pond, features a wooded park and swimming area. Keeping it closed this summer is expected to save about $40,000.

Resident Lisa Vigue told councilors Thursday night, before they approved the budget, that the park provides her autistic son with a safe, quiet, beautiful place for quality family time. She acknowledged financial times are tough for the city, but said these are also hard times for residents, making the need for a public place of refuge and recreation even greater.

“I think closing it will be a detriment to the city, with enough hardship already going on with unemployment in every direction,” Vigue said. “It’s one of the few pleasures a lot of people can have in their community.”

Community Services Director Leif Dahlin said about 5,400 people used Bicentennial Nature Park last summer. That’s roughly the same number of people who used the city’s three public swimming pools last summer.

Dahlin said it would cost about $40,000 to open the park seven days a week for the summer, or $29,000 to open it four days a week, likely Thursday through Sunday.

Some councilors proposed restoring funding for the park but couldn’t convince a majority of their colleagues to do so.

Restoring full funding for the park would have added 3 cents to the city’s tax rate, which is currently projected to increase from $17.30 to $17.55 per $1,000 of property value. That means a tax increase of about $32 for the year for the owner of a $125,000 home in Augusta, from $2,163 to $2,194.

“Bicentennial Park — it will cost 3 cents on the (tax) rate to keep that open,” Councilor David Rollins said. “So, instead of a $32 increase, for the owner of a $125,000 home, it’d be a $35 increase. I believe the majority of people in the city of Augusta would be willing to do that. That they wouldn’t see that as an astronomical tax increase. The park impacts the quality of life of our community.”

Councilor Dan Emery said while he’d love to see the park open, he would not be in favor of opening it unless its expenses were covered by fees charged to park users. The park is free for Augusta residents, while out-of-town users are not allowed unless they are guests of residents.

After nearly two hours of debate Thursday night, councilors voted 8-0 to approve the budget as proposed, without restoring funding for the park.

Roberta Record, a member of the city’s Conservation Commission, recalled being one of the first to look at the Bicentennial Nature Park property before the city bought it in the late 1990s. Record said it’s a shame the park won’t be used and children will be deprived of a wooded swimming spot to cool off this summer.

She asked what the point of the city owning the property would be if it’s not going to be used.

Mayor William Stokes said officials hope the economy will improve and the park’s closure will be temporary. Stokes said if the state fully funded the revenue sharing program, through which it distributes funds to municipalities by a formula set in Maine law, it would bring Augusta another $850,000 in revenue.

“If we had that $850,000 we would not have had the difficult time we’ve had this session,” he said. “But when the state chooses to raid revenue sharing as it has for several year now — it’s not a recent phenomenon — then we have to make up the difference.”

The budget is just more than 2 percent higher than the current year’s budget.

City Manager William Bridgeo’s initially proposed $51.5 million budget would have required a 3.5 percent tax increase.

But budget changes — including the addition of some previously unbudgeted revenue from corporate property tax assessments and the use of more money from the city’s undesignated, or surplus account — helped reduce the impact to taxpayers.

The Augusta Board of Education approved the school’s $26.8 million share of the budget in March, but the school budget also was subject to approval by city councilors as part of the overall budget. It was approved by councilors as part of their budget vote Thursday.

The school’s portion of the budget will also go to voters citywide in a budget validation referendum as part of the June 12 primary elections. The city budget only requires approval by councilors and is not subject to a vote by residents.

The school budget is $106,000, or about 0.4 percent, lower than the current year, but will require an increase in tax dollars due to decreased revenues, including reduced state funding.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

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