AUGUSTA — City Manager William Bridgeo’s proposed $52.4 million budget, which doesn’t include nearly $700,000 in spending added recently to the school budget, would raise city property taxes by 4 percent.

With the additional proposed school spending included, the tax increase would rise to about 7 percent.

Councilors could, as they have done previously, send the school budget back to the Board of Education with directions to make cuts to lessen the impact on taxpayers.

At least one councilor is advocating doing just that.

“There is no question taxes will have to go up some amount,” said City Councilor Michael Byron. “I can’t vote for a 7 percent increase. What will happen, I think, is we’ll send (the school budget) back and ask the school board to find X amount of reductions.”

Bridgeo’s budget counts on Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to suspend revenue sharing payments to municipalities to be rejected by the state Legislature. That would cost Augusta about $1.6 million a year.

“If that fails to happen, and the Legislature fails to restore revenue sharing, we’re in big trouble,” Bridgeo said. “I’ve been at this for 35 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s mind-boggling.”

Without that $1.6 million in state revenue sharing, Bridgeo said, the tax rate would have to increase another 6.6 percent to fund the current budget. Or, to cut the budget enough so the loss of the $1.6 million in revenue would have no impact on taxpayers, the city’s workforce of 204 would have to be reduced to 169 — a loss of 35 people, or 15 percent of the workforce, according to Bridgeo.

“There’s no way we can eliminate that many positions without impacting key services, like police, fire, and public works,” said Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager.

Bridgeo’s budget uses school figures from a school budget proposed by Interim Superintendent James Anastasio before $700,000 was added by the Board of Education last week.

Bridgeo’s budget would result in the tax rate increasing from $17.55 to $18.25 per $1,000 of property valuation.

For the owner of an average single-family home in Augusta valued at $128,000, that would mean a tax bill of $2,336, an increase of $90.

The municipal share of the budget, at $23.6 million, is up $432,000, or 2 percent.

Major increases include $167,000 for step increases for employees, $89,000 in increased employee pension costs, and $151,000 to add three new public safety positions — one police officer and two firefighter/paramedics.

The new police officer position would restore a patrol officer job cut in the current year’s budget. Bridgeo said city councilors made it clear in a goal-setting session earlier this year that they wanted more police officers on duty.

St. Pierre said the cost of adding the two firefighter/paramedic positions would likely be offset by increased ambulance revenues and reduced overtime, because the additional staff would allow the city to take more ambulance runs, boosting revenue from fees.

Bridgeo also recommends hiring a full-time downtown manager. He proposes taking $20,000 in tax increment financing revenues — which in previous years have gone to fund the city’s share of Capital Riverfront Improvement District expenses — and instead use it to fund the city’s share of the downtown job, which has been requested by the Augusta Downtown Alliance and Main Street Maine program.

The budget does not include money to reopen Bicentennial Nature Park on Three Cornered Pond. However, Bridgeo said a citizen committee has formed to try to reopen the park, which the city closed last year to save $42,000, and the Augusta Rotary Club has expressed interest in helping to reopen the park. If citizens raise money to reopen the park but need matching funding from the city to do so, money could be taken from the city’s unassigned fund balance, Bridgeo said.

The budget already uses nearly $500,000 from that fund balance account to help offset the impact of additional spending on taxpayers. Taking that much from the fund balance, which is generally reserved for unexpected expenses, would leave $5.6 million in the fund balance, or 10.8 percent of the city budget.

Bridgeo’s budget proposal also takes $167,000 to offset taxes from a fund made up of proceeds from the sale of the former Cony High School property to Hannaford for $1.5 million in 2008.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]

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