AUGUSTA — Residents told city councilors they can’t afford a property tax increase proposed as part of the $52.6 million city and school budget.

Shirley Kinney, a lifelong Augusta resident, said her only income is a monthly Social Security check which she has to stretch just to pay her increasing bills, which include monthly property tax payments because, she said, monthly is the only way she can afford to pay them.

“It takes all that to live, and there’s not enough,” she said of her monthly Social Security check. “Please don’t raise the taxes, because I can’t afford it.”

Some councilors, in response, said they don’t think they will pass the budget with a 6.6 percent increase and hope to reduce the impact on taxpayers before they wrap up the budget over the next two weeks.

“I don’t think we’re going to vote for 6.6 percent. Hopefully it’s going to be less than that,” said Councilor Patrick Paradis.

Later in the meeting, Finance Director Ralph St. Pierre said updated property valuations and other updates to the budget mean the increase in taxes would be about 6 percent, not 6.6, if the budget is approved as proposed.

That would result in the tax rate increasing from $17.55 to $18.62 per $1,000 of property valuation.
Paradis warned that the property tax is the only way for the city to raise revenues and urged residents to, in turn, urge legislators to consider allowing municipalities to charge local sales taxes, lodging taxes, or legislation that would allow municipalities to seek payments in lieu of taxes from nonprofit organizations, which aren’t required to pay property taxes.

City Manager William Bridgeo and Councilor Cecil Munson noted the city wouldn’t have to raise taxes at all if the state paid its full share of revenue sharing and aid for local schools.

“Put the problem where it lies, over there at that big house where they have a dome on top of it,” Munson said, referring to the State House.

Resident and former City Councilor Mary Mayo-Wescott said she remembered, in 1974-75, when the combined city and school budget was only $6 million. She said she didn’t think any of the roughly 30 people in council chambers, for a public hearing on the budget Thursday, were in favor of a 6.6 percent tax increase.

She said later, however, she appreciated city officials’ explanations of the budget and why it would have an impact on taxpayers.

Resident Les Wilkinson said he strongly supports passage of the budget as proposed, with the 6.6 percent tax increase.

He noted for most taxpayers, the increase would mean paying between  $120 and $180 extra on their tax bills for the year, an amount he said is well worth it to provide a better education for Augusta’s youths.

“I appreciate there may be those who find that to be a very challenging number,” Wilkinson said. “But if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we could all find $120 or $180 in savings. It’s really not a lot of money.”

He reminded councilors the city’s residents, in the last rewrite of the city’s comprehensive plan, authorized a statement in the plan which said, “We do whatever it takes to improve the lives of our children.”

The $27.56 million school share of the budget is up 2.6 percent over the current year’s budget, according to Interim Superintendent James Anastasio. It would require about $12 million from local taxpayers and increase property taxes about 5 percent.

The school budget is slated to go to voters in a referendum June 11. Bridgeo noted if the budget isn’t approved by councilors in time for that vote, the vote could be moved until two weeks later.

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

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

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 cutting the budget enough so that the loss of $1.7 million in revenue would have no impact on taxpayers meant the city’s workforce of 204 would have to be reduced to 169 — a loss of 35 people, or 15 percent of the workforce. Five years ago, the city had 240 employees.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]

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