AUGUSTA — One of the goals set by the City Council this year was to target drug abuse in the city and, more specifically, to eliminate heroin.

The proposed $55.1 million city budget aims city money right at that goal with funding to hire two more police detectives to help fight crime stemming from drug abuse.

City Manager William Bridgeo’s proposed budget, which would call for a tax increase of 5.4 percent, was delivered to city councilors Tuesday evening. It includes city and school spending and Augusta’s share of the Kennebec County budget.

Councilors can — and often do — make revisions to the budget, and they plan to review the proposal over the next several weeks.

The total budget is up 3.4 percent compared to the current year’s budget. It would increase the tax rate from $18.67 per every $1,000 of property value to $19.67. That means the property tax on the average single-family home in Augusta, valued at $117,500, would be $2,311, an increase of $117.50.

Mayor David Rollins said the proposal provides a starting point for councilors.

Some of it is beyond the city’s control. Proposed changes at the state level could affect local finances, but they haven’t been determined, and nearly $1 million of the budget increase is a result of contracted increases in employee pay and projected increases in the cost of benefits and insurance, Rollins said.

“We’d like to be able to come forward and say we don’t have any tax increase, but the fact is our wages are contracted to go up 2 percent and health benefits are up 12.5 percent, and there is not a lot we can do to control that,” Rollins said. “We will work very hard to minimize the impact on the local community.”

The two detective positions are among five new employee positions included in the budget. Two of the others, both firefighter jobs, have no adverse effect on the budget because they would be funded by money that this year was budgeted for overtime costs in the department, Bridgeo said. The fifth position is that of a public works employee.

The budget includes $130,000 to hire the detectives “to combat the growing problem of drug abuse and related criminal activity in the city,” Bridgeo said.

Police Chief Robert Gregoire said that over the last few years the city and the rest of Kennebec County have had an increase in drug activity and crimes related to it. He said the budget’s inclusion of money to hire two more detectives would allow two detectives — not necessarily the two proposed hires — to focus on drug use and abuse and related crimes.

The department has four detectives now.

“This would definitely allow us to put more concentration on drug use and abuse,” Gregoire said. “At this point we’re at max capacity doing what we’re doing. And we’re looking for additional staffing to better serve the community.”

“Councilors, and citizens, are very concerned about the situation we find Augusta in. We aren’t blind to the fact we’ve got an ongoing drug problem,” Rollins said.

Gregoire said drug abuse is a major contributing factor to a number of other crimes, including assault, disorderly conduct, domestic violence, child abuse and theft, as people break the law to get money to buy drugs or make bad decisions while using drugs.

“If you can lower the impact of drugs in a community, you also lower the crime rate in other areas,” the police chief said.

The Police Department’s proposed budget is $4.5 million, up $235,000, or 5.4 percent. Wages and benefits, including the money for the two detective positions, are up by $260,000.

The public works laborer position carries salary and benefits of about $40,000.

Bridgeo said the new position is needed to relieve the strain on the department and its employees when a worker is absent, especially when there is extra work to be done because of bad weather.

“It was clear this winter that we are understaffed at (public works), and this new position is a modest attempt to alleviate that problem,” Bridgeo said.

The public works budget is up by $135,000 to $3.7 million, a 3.8 percent increase.

Augusta’s share of the Kennebec County budget is projected to increase by $28,600 to $1.46 million, a 2 percent increase.

Bridgeo said a change under consideration by the Legislature could shift more of the cost of county jails from the state to the counties. Bridgeo said he doesn’t anticipate that proposal passing this year, but if it does, it could increase the city’s county tax bill by as much as $400,000.

That’s one of several proposals under consideration by the Legislature that could affect the city budget.

A bill proposing to change how excise taxes are paid by utility companies could cost the city as much as $250,000 a year in revenue from excise taxes on Central Maine Power Co. vehicles. Bridgeo anticipates that if the bill passes, it will be phased in gradually, so he reduced the amount expected in excise taxes from CMP by $50,000, not $250,000. However, revenue from other excise tax sources is projected to increase because of an increase in vehicle sales, so the overall revenue from excise taxes is budgeted to increase by $48,400.

Other potential changes at the state level that could harm the city budget include proposals to change how business equipment is taxed and changes to the homestead exemption.

“Depending on how those issues are resolved, the adverse impact on our budget next year could be as much as a million dollars or more,” Bridgeo said in his budget memorandum to councilors, noting that would be the equivalent of a 4 percent property tax increase or greater. “In this budget, I have attempted to take a middle ground. On the one hand, I want to avoid sensationalizing the matter, while on the other hand, it is unlikely that when the dust eventually settles from the Legislature’s deliberations this session, that we will go unscathed.”

Bridgeo said he relied on information from Augusta’s legislative delegation, the Maine Municipal Association and others in trying to anticipate which state proposals are likely to pass and affect the local budget.

City Assessor Lisa Morin estimates the city’s total property valuation will grow by $10 million to $1.48 billion. Rollins said that will bring roughly $200,000 in new revenue to the city, helping reduce the budget’s effect on property taxes.

The Board of Education approved a $27.9 million school budget last week, a 2.7 percent increase from the previous year. That budget also is subject to approval by councilors as part of the total budget.

The school budget would be funded in part by $12.7 million from local property taxes, $799,000 more than the previous year, a 6.5 percent increase. The school budget alone, if unchanged by councilors, is expected to increase the property tax rate about 2.6 percent.

The school budget will go to voters in a citywide referendum on June 9. The city budget needs only council approval, which Rollins anticipated probably would come in late May.

Rollins said City Council budget workshops will take place Thursday nights starting April 9 and will be open to the public and broadcast on local-access television.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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