AUGUSTA — Residents will have a final opportunity to be heard Thursday, before city councilors wrap up deliberations on a $52.6 million city and school budget that would increase property taxes by 6.6 percent.

However, Mayor William Stokes said, regardless of this year’s budget numbers, the system of funding city services and schools primarily by taxing property owners is not working.

“None of us like property tax increases,” Stokes said during the council’s most recent budget workshop. “On the other hand, we understand there are needs in this community, and we need to meet those needs to compete as a community. We have some real difficult decisions on our hands. The government services you as citizens want have to be funded somehow. There is no free lunch. The question is, how do you want to have the revenue stream? The system we have is not working. It functions in a way that puts an extraordinary strain on the property taxpayer. We have to have a more balanced, stable way of raising revenues, so we can fund the services we expect and demand.”

Stokes urged residents to speak not only to local officials, but also to state legislators about the need for tax reform to better share the costs of providing government services.

Thursday night, however, could be the last chance for residents and business owners to share their thoughts and concerns with city councilors on the proposed budget, as councilors are expected to wrap up their budget discussions within the next few weeks.

The public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday in council chambers at Augusta City Center.

The $27.56 million school portion of the budget is slated to go to voters in a referendum June 11. The school budget is up 2.6 percent over the current year’s budget, according to Interim Superintendent James Anastasio.

Residents do not vote on the city budget, which will be set by a vote of councilors.

Looming over the city budget debate has been the question of whether the state will eliminate revenue sharing to municipalities, as Gov. Paul LePage proposed in his state budget.

That could cost Augusta about $1.7 million in revenue.

With no state revenue sharing, City Manager William 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 $1.7 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.

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

City councilors also are scheduled to consider an order authorizing Bridgeo to approve requests to modify the times construction work may take place for the installation of natural gas pipelines. Both Maine Natural Gas and Summit Natural Gas of Maine plan to install natural gas pipeline throughout the city.

Bridgeo told councilors in a memo that the authorization would allow him to approve requests on an as-needed basis for nighttime construction of portions of the pipeline projects of both gas companies.

Doing so, he said, could be beneficial to public safety and help avoid traffic congestion in some cases, such as when crossing busy roads.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]

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