GARDINER — With a proposed Gardiner budget that could decrease the city’s share of property taxes raised while investing in long-planned infrastructure, it might seem that smaller items might get a pass.

No so in Gardiner, where city officials are reviewing sections of the budget that will be debated next month.

This week they considered general government funding, what’s being proposed to be spent on the Gardiner Public Library, as well as local nonprofits such as Johnson Hall, Gardiner Main Street and the Greater Gardiner Boys and Girls Club.

Councilor Maureen Blanchard, who serves at large, had plenty of questions about the library and nonprofits, funding requests that total just a little more than 5 percent of the city’s nearly $5.9 million spending plan.

“I’m arguing over peanuts; I know I am,” Blanchard said Thursday. “I would have to say that I have to start, or the council has to start, somewhere.”

Blanchard, who has been outspoken on these funding issues in the past, said she uses a two-pronged approach when it comes to the city budget. One is cutting expenditures. “That allows you to put money into a police cruiser that’s rusting out, and that money goes back into a resident’s pockets.”

The other is encouraging people who live in Gardiner to stay and encourage more people to move there. “We have to let people know that we are trying as hard as they are to be fiscally responsible.”

With the exodus of traditional industry, Gardiner has faced hard times, especially in maintaining municipal infrastructure that supported a manufacturing economy. The loss of state revenue sharing over the past five years also has pinched the city budget and led to cuts.

At $21.60 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, Gardiner’s tax rate is among the highest in the state. But when he distributed his proposed budget earlier this year, Gardiner City Manager Scott Morelli sought to change the conversation about the tax rate just a bit.

Morelli compared Gardiner’s tax rate to that of Bar Harbor, which comes in at about half of Gardiner’s. Bar Harbor residents actually pay about the same property tax as Gardiner residents, though, because properties there are valued higher. An average Gardiner home is valued at $150,000, while an average Bar Harbor home value is double that.

Even so, Blanchard said she has seen the effect of property taxes on city residents, some of whom have told her they can’t afford to live in Gardiner, either while they are working or after they retire.

“I am not against the library,” she said. “It’s a valuable resource to whoever wants to use it.”

But Blanchard is often looking for information that she said she cannot get. “I want to know if it’s being run effectively and efficiently.”

At Wednesday’s budget review, she questioned Anne Davis, library director, about the number of people who use the library and what they do while they are there.

“The library is different from the Fire or Police departments. They can easily log in and tell you what they do,” Davis said.

“We keep circulation numbers, but that doesn’t reflect all the services a library offers,” Davis said. Advances in technology mean that library patrons can borrow e-books and soon might be able to stream movies, rather than checking out books and DVDs. “I can’t tell you how many people in Pittston have checked out an e-book, but I can tell you how many e-books are being checked out,” she said.

The library also doesn’t keep data on the number of reference questions asked, because there’s no standard definition of what a reference question is. In some libraries, Davis said, asking directions to the bathroom is considered a reference question.

The Gardiner Public Library has counters on the doors, but the counters don’t differentiate between visitors and staff members, and they don’t single out people who come in just to use the bathroom. The library doesn’t define who comes through the door because, Davis said, she doesn’t have the staff to do that. And for her purposes, the library costs the same to run whether one person walks through the door or 50 people do.

“If my system doesn’t give me numbers, I cannot make up numbers. I have to rely on my own ethical behavior and professionalism,” she said.

Blanchard, who is faces a primary next month in her bid for the Senate District 14 seat against Bryan Cutchen, said she thinks Gardiner is a jewel.

“It’s just hidden behind some weeds, and the weeds are the high mill rate,” she said. “We have a lot of things going for us. But having the second-highest mill rate in the county is not helping.”

The schedule for the remaining budget review and debate lines up this way:

• May 4, police and fire/ambulance budgets;

• May 11, wastewater and TIF budgets and start of budget debate;

• May 18, discussion and continued debate on the budget and a move to a first reading;

• June 1, public hearing and first reading of the budget;

• June 22, public hearing and second and final reading of the budget.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ