AUGUSTA — Parents and teachers told city councilors considering a proposed $27.56 million school budget that if they approve the budget as presented and get behind providing an adequate education to the city’s youths, the city’s voters will follow.

However, they also heard from residents and business owners who said they fear they could be driven out of the city if taxes increase.

The budget proposal would require about $12 million from local taxpayers and increase property taxes about 5 percent.

The council had taken no action by press time.

Several residents, parents and teachers told councilors, at a public input session on the budget Thursday, the best thing they can do to help educate the city’s youths is pass the budget.

“If you get on board with this budget, the community is going to get on board with this budget,” resident Les Wilkinson said. “You have to raise taxes. You provide an essential service. It’s your responsibility to do so.”

Paul Vachon, a resident and athletic director at Cony High School, said that over the last three years, 65 teachers have been cut from the school system, both Hodgkins and Buker middle schools were closed, and staff have gone without raises while class sizes have increased.

“We’ve taken our cuts,” Vachon said. “There is no more. I wish and hope we can put this to the citizens of Augusta and have them decide. It’s going to be a very difficult time if we don’t get this school budget passed.”

The Board of Education approved the school budget in late March.

In Augusta, the school budget needs City Council approval, too.

And the school budget also is subject to voter approval in a budget validation referendum in June.

A public hearing on the combined city and school budget of $52.6 million, which would increase taxes 6.6 percent, is planned for May 23, with the overall budget tentatively scheduled to be finalized May 30.

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

Together, the city and school budget as proposed would increase property taxes by an estimated 6.6 percent, resulting in the tax rate increasing from $17.55 to $18.72 per $1,000 of property valuation.

Mayor William Stokes warned that if Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to cut state revenue sharing to municipalities is approved as part of the state budget, it would cost Augusta $1.7 million in revenue, which would require a property tax increase of 12 percent to make up for.

Some residents said they and their neighbors can’t afford to pay more in property taxes.

“Where is this money going to come from?” asked resident John O’Hearn. “25 years ago people were leaving Augusta, because they felt Augusta’s taxes were too high.The question I have, are the taxes going to get to the point people who are retired, underemployed, are going to be able to afford to stay in Augusta? I’ve talked to a lot of people, and taxes going up a ridiculous amount is a common concern.”

Councilor Michael Byron noted that over the last 10 years in Augusta, the tax rate increase has averaged less than 1 percent.

When school officials first presented the budget to city councilors, they stressed that local taxpayers, if the budget were approved as proposed, would be contributing $242,000 less than the state’s Essential Programs and Services funding formula indicates should be raised from local taxes.

About 35 school staff members, wearing blue Augusta Education Association T-shirts with “Proud to be an Educator,” written on the back, attended the meeting, more than doubling the number of people at the meeting before their arrival.

The association, which represents teachers and other school staff members, is in contract negotiations with the Board of Education.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]

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