GARDINER — At a nearly four-hour meeting marked by angry outbursts and accusations, Gardiner city officials this week reached a budget compromise that would drop the proposed tax rate by 15 cents more than the budget presented at the end of March.

The Wednesday public hearing on the budget allowed city residents to voice their compliments and concerns on how city officials are considering spending money in the next year.

The city’s operating budget has been decreased by 2.1 percent, and this is the second year in which the operating budget has been cut. Capital spending, from one-time funds to cover one-time spending and purchases, more than doubles from last year’s level to $1.2 million, bringing the city’s overall proposed budget to $5.97 million. But because vehicles and equipment are being bought outright, the city avoids paying interest on purchases made over time and the fees for attorneys to draft the documents required for them.

The budget compromise brings the proposed property tax rate for the upcoming year down by a total of 25 cents to $21.45 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

QUALITY OF LIFE

One of the threads that runs through all budget debates in Gardiner is the city’s support for nonprofit organizations — the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Gardiner, Johnson Hall and Gardiner Main Street, which regularly receive about $50,000 each. This year, the Oldies but Goodies program for senior citizens is slated to receive $1,500.

The Gardiner Public Library, which seeks funding from partner communities, is often categorized with them, although it’s a city department.

They are often the focus of people who are concerned that as a service center and the host municipality, Gardiner and its residents pay more for those services than do neighboring communities whose residents use them.

Supporters say those organizations offer the kinds of experiences that people look for.

Demi Colby said she and her family have received help from both the library and Boys and Girls Club that made it possible for her to apply to college and for her family to cope in the wake of the suicide of her stepfather a year ago.

“People choose to come here because of what we offer,” Phyllis Gardiner said. Gardiner said she has served on the board of Gardiner Main Street, and she and her husband, former city Councilman Logan Johnston, own property in downtown Gardiner. Programs such as Gardiner Main Street, which fosters economic development and cultural vitality, and Johnson Hall leverage the relatively small amount of funding they receive to promote events and activities, such as free summer concerts at the Waterfront Park.

But armed with little else than the power of persuasion, Gardiner said, city officials have very little leverage to require partner communities to pay more for city-based services they use.

“I believe in what the nonprofits do,” said Clare Marron, a downtown business owner and resident.

Those organizations and the police and fire departments provide a reason for people to choose Gardiner, including companies that want to make investments, such as Developers Collaborative, which is developing a medical arts building and is proposing to build affordable senior housing on former T.W. Dick land parcels, she said.

But not everyone agreed.

“I don’t think anything should be off the table for budget cuts,” resident Matt Marshall said. In 2008, when he bought his home in South Gardiner, he paid $1,700 in property tax. Now, he said, he pays $3,000.

“I’m OK, I can swing it. But a lot of people can’t,” he said. “That’s probably the reason for the high foreclosure rate.”

Dennis Horton, who has lived in Gardiner since 1973, said he and his wife are considering leaving Gardiner because of the taxes.

“Everybody knows our taxes are up,” he said. And that’s why he said they’re having trouble selling their home, because prospective buyers also know about the city’s property taxes.

Terry Maschino said he’s seen a lot of new vehicles and equipment, and he thinks now is not the time to be spending money on them.

“A lot of vehicles are for luxury, not for need,” he said.

But the most vocal opponent was George Trask, a former city councilor with a longstanding contentious relationship with city officials, who took the opportunity to attack both city officials and the budget proposal.

“I think this is the worst council this city has seen in 25 years,” he said, as a preamble to listing his complaints, targeting city support of nonprofits and spending on equipment for the Public Works Department.

His demand for answers on why a roller is being bought for paving prompted a sharp exchange between him and City Manager Scott Morelli.

“Are you going to tell me what we’re going to use the roller for?” Trask said. “I couldn’t be here (at previous meetings). Some of us have to work for a living, some of us don’t, we’re retired and don’t want to come down here. Why can’t I get answers?”

“I didn’t know this was the George Trask Q and A show,” Morelli said.

“I don’t give a damn if you thought it was the George Trask Q and A show or not. I want an answer,” he said.

“There was a lot of bullshit back there when I was speaking,” Morelli said, referring to Trask and others who were talking while he was presenting updated budget information to the council.

Mayor Thom Harnett cut off the argument.

“I won’t allow you to berate city staff,” he said.

Public Works Director Tony LaPlant said the roller, used in sidewalk paving, is from 1964 and parts are no longer available for it.

Morelli later apologized for discouraging anyone from speaking and apologized to Trask.

THE RESCUE BOAT

Trask also took issue with a request from Fire Chief Al Nelson to spend $53,000 on a rescue boat. Other residents questioned that expense as well.

“You don’t need that boat,” Trask said. “We bought that boat 21 years ago,” and although the floor had rotted out, he said, it could be replaced.

“It didn’t sink,” he said and added that its stability shouldn’t matter when pulling people out of the water if they’re dead.

Nelson, who requested the rescue boat in this year’s spending plan, said the department’s current boat is not adequate for a water rescue.

“I can tell you how many times my guys have pulled someone out of the river,” he said. “None. Because it can’t be done safely.”

Officer Clint Thompson, of the Maine Marine Patrol, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said relying on the Marine Patrol for searches or rescues may result in delays.

A typical overnight call to help find someone who has jumped from a bridge or fell in the water, means he’s dispatched from his home in Brunswick, and he has to decide whether he’s better off picking up his boat in Bath or driving to Augusta to pick up a trailered boat there. Either way, it could be an hour or more before he’s able to respond. His partner, who lives in Wiscasset, faces similar response times.

“During the day, it can be even worse,” he said. “I was 40 miles offshore today doing lobster enforcement.”

The Marine Patrol is also limited by the availability of fuel. Thompson said his only source of dockside fuel is in Bath.

“The Gardiner waterfront has really blossomed,” he said. He’s encountered a number of people who like to travel from Boothbay to Gardiner by boat because it’s a nice trip and the Kennebec River is well marked. He’s also seen an increased number of kids hanging around the waterfront. And with increased usage, there’s increased chance that something could go wrong.

Gardiner has mutual aid agreements with communities across the region. If a water rescue was needed, he said, “We could call Augusta, but it comes down to time.”

And while the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office has a boat, police Chief James Toman said the department might have to dispatch a deputy who is on a call in China, Albion or Benton to respond.

Kate Carnes, who had come to support the work on the Cobbossee Trail, spoke up on the issue of the rescue.

“I am the wife of a man who came within seconds of losing his life on the Androscoggin River,” she said.

If some nearby boaters hadn’t helped, she said she would have been left a widow with two children younger than 10 to bring up on her own.

“I don’t know what value you could put on his life, but it’s certainly more than $53,000,” she said.

At-large Councilor Jonathan Ault had offered an amendment to cut the boat from the budget, but after debate, that motion failed.

“I’m not hot on buying the boat,” Phillip Hart said, but he supported keeping the funding in place, and he asked Nelson if he would be willing to offer up some education on the need for the boat to members of the public.

Nelson said he would.

COMPROMISE

In many ways, city officials have been working on the budget continuously since the current budget was approved about a year ago. A comprehensive level-of-service evaluation by an outside consultant examined the workings of city departments and found that for a city of Gardiner’s size, the services it provides are largely appropriate, and the consultant could suggest only a few opportunities for adjustments. The results of the study were released and discussed in a public forum, and each of the departments was reviewed at city council meetings last fall.

City elected officials also reviewed departmental budget requests at weekly meetings in April and May.

City Councilor Maureen Blanchard, at large, had offered up the proposal at last week’s budget review to tap the fund balance to roll back the tax increase implemented a year ago.

In response, Morelli reworked the proposed budget to come up with a plan to take the property tax rate down 15 cents more than the original budget proposal’s 10 cents.

The fund balance — generally, any money not spent at the end of a budget year that is turned back to city coffers, as does revenue from lot sales at the Libby Hill Business Park — is the city’s cash on hand. The city’s auditors recommend keeping between 8 percent and 17 percent of the city’s budget available in case of emergency.

“At the same time, we don’t like to keep too much in there because it’s taxpayer money,” Finance Director Denise Brown said.

City officials have elected to use it in the past to plug holes in the budget, Morelli said, and to lessen tax increases.

But using it in that way represents some risk for the city, he said, because there’s no revenue to balance the expense. In a year, city officials will have to cut spending or raise taxes.

Public hearings are scheduled for the first and second readings of the municipal budget on June 1 and 22.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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