WINSLOW — In a divided vote, town councilors have amended the proposed 2015-16 budget to keep the town’s property tax rate flat.

If approved, the move would mean a $97,000 reduction in spending on education and an increase in the amount the town will use from its cash reserves to offset taxpayer expenses.

The amended budget approved Monday night came as a surprise to some members of the Winslow school board, who now have to make more cuts to a budget that has already been trimmed three times.

At a budget hearing April 1, the Town Council accepted a $21.3 million combined school and municipal budget that included $13.6 million in local spending. The budget, reached after a month of hearings with town departments, called for a 26-cent increase in the town’s tax rate to $15.76 per $1,000 in property, the first tax increase in six years.

But a separate budget proposal from Councilor Ken Fletcher suggests keeping the tax rate flat by decreasing education spending and using an additional $60,000 from the town’s fund balance. Fletcher’s proposed spending plan is about $21.2 million with $13.5 million in local spending, keeping the tax rate flat at $15.50.

Reached Tuesday, School Board Chairman Ronald Whary said he was surprised at Fletcher’s amendment. The school board was under the impression that it reached an agreement with the council at the April 1 meeting, he said.

“I think it’s been reduced more this year than it has in any other year,” he said of the school budget.

During the council meeting Monday night, Fletcher defended his proposal even as other councilors questioned the approach.

“Increasing the burden on Winslow taxpayers cannot be justified, in my opinion, at this time,” Fletcher said.

The state Legislature bears responsibility for shifting costs over to local taxpayers, he said. Even with the reduction in education spending, the school budget will still increase about $140,000 over last year, Fletcher said.

Council Chairman Gerald Saint Amand said Fletcher’s proposal “seems to target education” when there could be cuts made to other departments.

The school board had already presented three budgets to the council, and the last proposal “seemed to be pretty bare-bones,” Saint Amand said. He added that education is important to Winslow, and taxpayers may be willing to stomach a tax increase to fund the schools.

Councilor Raymond Caron was concerned that using too much of the town’s fund balance would leave it without enough to lower the tax burden next year.

Fletcher said that if the Legislature reversed some of its decisions, Winslow could replace the education money and use less of its savings.

“I don’t get a real fuzzy feeling that’s going to happen,” Caron said.

Councilor Benjamin Twitchell, on the other hand, agreed the council shouldn’t raise property taxes.

“I don’t think we’re getting ready to jump off a cliff right now,” he said.

Councilors ultimately voted 4-2 to approve Fletcher’s amendment, with Caron and Saint Amand opposed. Saint Amand also voted against the first reading of the budget, which passed 5-1. Councilor Steve Russell did not attend the meeting.

The council can reduce the overall education budget, but specific cuts are at the school board’s discretion. According to budget projections, the proposed cuts would mainly affect transportation and textbooks.

Whary said the school board would discuss cuts at a meeting later this month.

“It will be thoroughly discussed and the administration will come up with some ideas,” he said.

The council is expected to have a second and final reading of the amended budget at its May 11 meeting.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire


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