As the RSU 18 budget moves toward a district-wide referendum on Tuesday, elected officials in three of the district’s five towns have come out in opposition to the proposal.

The $34.7 million budget was passed by voters on May 7, but still needs to be approved through a secret ballot referendum. The budget is 2.77 percent higher than last year’s budget, an increase of about $933,760. School officials have described it as the “tightest” budget that has been proposed. The budget increase is almost entirely driven by rising salaries and benefits, which amount to $886,574 of the increase, according to district budget figures.

Opponents believe the budget is too high and places a burden on local taxpayers at a time when they have tried to hold the line on municipal budgets to prevent tax increases.

“We’re very, very conservative, and I just don’t see that with their budget,” said Ernie Rice of the Belgrade Board of Selectmen. Rice said he and three other members of the board of selectpersons, Michael Barrett, Rick Damren and Bruce Plourd, were firmly opposed to the budget.

Belgrade will have school payments of approximately $476,000 above what it paid last year, an 8.6 percent increase. That would drive property tax rates up almost a full dollar to $14.35 per $1,000 of property value, according to a report from Town Manager Gregory Gill.

That is too much for taxpayers in Belgrade to take, Rice said, especially after the town worked to reduce its own budget to ease property taxes.

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“One million dollars is probably nothing to them, but it is a big increase to the people of Belgrade,” he said.

On Saturday, Rice was at the transfer station in Belgrade, passing out information about the budget and reminding people to vote on Tuesday, but not advocating for them to vote either way, he said.

“The place to fight this is in the voting booth,” Rice said.

In neighboring Rome, the proposed budget could require property owners to pay $1.6 million to the schools, about $300,000 more than last year, a nearly 23 percent increase, according to selectmen’s figures. The school district projects the town’s share of the budget will go up about $98,900 over last year, but because Rome operates on a January to December fiscal year, half of that increase will be included in its 2015 budget, Second Selectman Richard LaBelle said Sunday.

“Such a tax increase as a result of excessive spending will have a direct impact on many Rome families’ quality of life,” wrote Selectmen Kelly Archer, Malcolm Charles and LaBelle in an open letter signed last week that urges voters to reject the budget.

Rome’s tax rate rose 25 percent this year in large part because of the increased RSU budget, selectmen said. The projected tax rate for 2015 is $9.27 per $1,000 worth of property, a $1.87 increase.

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“We must stand together as neighbors and families united against such a significant tax increase,” the selectmen wrote. “A NO vote will send the school board back to the drawing board to create a leaner budget proposal,” they told voters.

Selectmen in Sidney voted unanimously earlier this year to oppose the spending plan.

If the budget is passed by voters, the town can expect to pay about $436,330 more than last year, according to school department projections.

Selectman Laura Parker said school budgets continue to increase at a time when enrollment is dwindling. Student population is expected to fall from 2,972 in 2014 to 2,750 in 2017, according to district projections.

Roughly 87 percent of the town’s entire budget is devoted to paying the school district, Parker said, so regular annual increases have a direct affect on local taxpayers. Opposition to the budget proposal should not be construed as a lack of support for teachers and programs in the district, Parker added, a common sentiment among budget opponents.

“Just because we don’t support the school budget doesn’t mean we don’t support the schools,” Parkman said.

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There is also discontent in Oakland, where the district is headquartered and is home to Messalonskee High School.

Charles Sweigart, a member of the town’s budget advisory committee, said he would encourage residents to vote down the budget. The town is likely to see a $393,600 increase in its payments to the school if the budget is passed.

“I don’t see any reason for a million dollar increase,” he said. School spending continues to rise, even as Oakland has managed to keep its expenses in line and prevent tax increases, Sweigart said.

“The school board is the one that’s killing us,” he said.

The only town where active opposition to the budget doesn’t appear to have cropped up is China.

“As far as I know, the board hasn’t taken a position on it,” said Selectman Robert McFarland. China could see an approximately $476,140 increase in school payments, the largest of the five towns, according to district figures.

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Last year, voters in China and Sidney rejected the budget, but it gained support from Belgrade, Oakland and Rome.

In 2012, however, it took three rounds of voting to pass a budget, which finally gained approval from voters in October.

RSU 18 Superintendent Gary Smith said on Sunday he appreciated the frustration felt by voters in the district, but the increases were partially due to things out of his control.

The amount the state requires local taxpayers to raise was increased this year, and towns’ valuations have continued to rise over the past years, meaning the district receives less state support, Smith said. The problem is a state funding formula that is flawed, he said.

“It’s not just an RSU 18 problem,” Smith said.

“I totally get that the communities are frustrated,” he said, “but the way the funding formula works, there’s no way for me to fix that.”

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Polls will be open at the following locations on Tuesday, May 19:

Belgrade: Center for All Seasons, noon-8 p.m.

China: China Town Office, 7:30 a.m.-8 p.m.

Oakland: Williams Elementary School, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.

Rome: Rome Town Office, noon-8 p.m.

Sidney: Sidney Town Office, 8 a.m.-8 p.m.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire


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