GARDINER — Residents likely won’t be facing a tax increase from the city next year, following objections from both city councilors and members of the public at the budget’s first public hearing Wednesday night, part of a four-plus-hour board session which went until after 11 p.m.

“That was clear to me, and I don’t think that sentiment will change,” City Manager Scott Morelli said of not increasing taxes.

The city will instead look to cut around $177,000 out of its proposed budget — an unexpected shortfall caused by decreased municipal aid from the state.

Morelli originally proposed a $8,738,596 budget that didn’t call for a tax increase and cut $618,000 from department expenses.

He proposed the budget expecting municipal revenue sharing from the state to be funded at the current level.

But a two-year budget unanimously passed last week by the state’s budget-writing committee proposes cutting municipal sharing by about $75 million, a reduction from the $200 million cut proposed by Gov. Paul LePage in his two year budget

Morelli had recommended increasing the tax rate by $.50 per $1,000 of assessed value to cover the gap left by revenue sharing.

That would have meant a tax increase of about $73 for the average household in Gardiner, valued at $146,900.

To avoid a tax hike, city councilors agreed to cut the paving budget in half, by around $90,000, and not fund an additional parks maintenance worker and plow truck driver, a full-time position that would have cost around $40,000, according to Morelli.

The city just started advertising for the open position.

Councilors instructed Morelli and city staff to propose another $40,000 to $50,000 in cuts to present to them at their next meeting in two weeks.

The majority of residents who spoke at the meeting urged councilors to not increase the tax rate, but others said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to maintain the services.

Opponents of the tax increase argued that many people in Gardiner can’t afford to pay more and that a higher tax rate would continue to stunt population growth for a city that has been losing residents.

Proponents of taking the tax hit said the services and resources in the city are why residents move to and remain in Gardiner.

Around ten residents spoke turning the public hearing and five strongly advocated for keep the tax rate flat.

George Trask, a former city councilor, was one of the strong advocates for maintaining the tax rate.

“People can’t afford to do that. You can’t, you can’t, you can’t. Period,” Trask said to the council.

He suggested cutting funding to the Boys & Girls Club and to Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center.

“They don’t need our money. We need our money,” Tresk said. “Our taxpayers need our money to get by.”

Some of the avoidance to raise property taxes centered on councilor’s apprehension to pass the $20 per $1,000 of assessed value mark.

Gardiner’s tax rate is $19.90 per $1,000 of assessed value.

“The reason why we’ve tried to hold the line on taxes the last few years is we’re worried about people leaving or not coming to the community,” Morelli said.

He said the fiscal year 2013 tax bill for Gardiner residents was on average 33 percent higher than other Kennebec County service centers.

Ken Holmes, another former city councilor, said he doesn’t think there is excess  in the budget, but he recommended that councilors don’t increase the tax rate.

He said he would look at the quality of the police, fire and public works departments when moving to a community, but he doesn’t think the majority of people buying home would do so.

Resident Phyllis Gardiner asked councilors to balance any cuts they make with continuing the services that allow city staff and community volunteers to market the city.

“I think we’re on the cusp of really being able to broaden our tax base,” she said.

Gardiner said she thinks maintaining marketable services is the best long-term strategy for keeping the tax rate down.

The paving budget cut being proposed by council would mean forgoing any road paving projected next fiscal year.

Councilors said they wanted to avoid cutting the other $90,000, which is being used to pledge for debt service for repaving Highland Avenue.

Not funding the Highland Avenue project would have meant pushing the project back another additional two years, because the Department of Transportation plans projects on a two-year basis, according to Public Works Director Tony LaPlante.

Morelli said construction on Highland Avenue already won’t begin until spring 2015.

Gardiner’s local state representative, Gay Grant, spoke to councilors at the start of the public hearing.

Grant, a Democrat from Gardiner, warned councilors not to count on a recent amendment to the state budget that would fund revenue sharing at its current level.

She said despite her and many others in the Legislature supporting the amendment, she thinks it’s more of a symbolic gesture.

The city published two announcements on its website urging residents to contact their local legislators about revenue sharing. The website displayed an alert on the top of its home page Wednesday titled “Avoid a Property Tax Increase” with flashing arrows.

That announcement urged residents to tell their legislators that they support the amendment to not decrease revenue sharing.

Grant said she would be hesitant to support amending the proposed state budget, because an amendment would likely open the door to other changes.

“If we begin to pick apart this carefully wrought compromise,” Grant said, “then the whole budget begins to unravel, like a thread pulled out of a cloth,” Grant said.

The council meeting got off to a slow start with an hour-long discussion regarding the renewal of a liquor and amusement license for Water Street Grill.

The council approved the renewal of the liquor license and directed city staff to issue an amusement license after agreeing to some restrictions.

Discussion centered on past noise complaints from neighbors about the noise of outdoor events.

The council also approved a design of a new gazebo that the Parks and Recreation Committee created over the course of several months with input from the public and committee members.

The previous gazebo in the Gardiner Common was torn down at the end of last year because of concerns for its structural integrity

Brian Kent, who drew the design of the gazebo, presented it to the council. He said the city could have it out to bid within two weeks, with the bids back by the end of July.”

Paul Koenig — 621-5663
[email protected]


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