WATERVILLE — The city’s long, contentious budgeting season ended Tuesday night as city councilors voted 6-1 to approve a proposed $37.6 million municipal and school budget for 2016-17 that reduces the tax rate by $5, from $27.80 per $1,000 of valuation to $22.80.

The vote followed a failed request from Council Chairman John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, to restore $250,000 in surplus money the schools had pitched in to help reduce the budget from an original $38 million budget the council approved July 5 and Mayor Nick Isgro vetoed the next day. The council voted to override his veto July 19, but on Aug. 1 it voted to repeal the override and open budget talks again.

More than 70 residents, including school administrators, Waterville Board of Education members, business people and others packed the council chamber, where O’Donnell proposed an amendment to the proposed budget, asking that the $250,000 in surplus be returned to it. He said schools in the last five years have met their budgets by taking an average of $250,000 a year out of surplus to pay their bills and offered to do so again this year, bringing the city’s surplus down to 11.9 percent of the annual budget when the council’s policy is to keep it at 12 percent.

The schools did that after making cuts of $300,000 or $400,000, which included teachers and school supplies, he said. Even school officials said using the surplus was fiscally irresponsible, O’Donnell said.

He emphasized that Waterville’s cost per student is $2,000, which is lower than the state average and that of area towns.

“This is a classic example, folks, of kicking the problem down the road,” O’Donnell said, adding that next year, teachers and programs will be cut and he could not agree with the logic of a reduced budget.

Councilor Nathaniel White, D-Ward 2, seconded O’Donnell’s motion, but the council rejected O’Donnell’s amendment, 5-2, after a long debate and objections from the public. Had O’Donnell’s amendment passed, the tax rate would have been $23.15 per $1,000 of assessed value, according to the city’s finance director, Chuck Calkins.

Isgro was the first to say he opposed O’Donnell’s amendment.

“I certainly wouldn’t support that, because this isn’t what we discussed,” Isgro said.

He was referring to a budget workshop last week at which city and school officials determined they both would cut $375,000 from the $38 million proposal, for a total of $750,000. Meanwhile, because of a recent citywide revaluation, many taxpayers face property tax increases, some will see reductions and some people’s taxes will remain the same.

City resident Jessica Laliberte, who is a member of the Planning Board, stood to say she filed an affidavit with the city clerk’s office July 22 saying residents would collect petition signatures to repeal the council’s override of Isgro’s budget veto. She said 812 signatures were collected. The petition, which needed 857 verified signatures of registered city voters became moot when the council repopened the budget Aug. 1.

“These signatures represent the forgotten people of our community, the elderly, poor, those on fixed incomes and the middle class,” Laliberte said.

The city’s tax base has shrunk and expenditures have grown, she said. “Our residents cannot bear any more tax burden,” she said. “We are at a breaking point.”

She wondered how many department heads live in Waterville, saying they are some of the highest-paid employees, and have vehicles for personal use and other perks. She said the school’s hiring of someone with a doctorate to teach stringed instruments is fiscally irresponsible, as is funding Waterville Main Street for $30,000. It is a nonprofit organization that does not pay taxes, she said.

Resident Julian Payne told O’Donnell that asking for $250,000 to be returned was risking a mayoral veto and another petition drive. He went on to say the revaluation has left a burden for more than 33 percent of residents, many of whom are elderly and struggling to meet basic needs while paying city employees’ salaries.

He said that, even with a $22.80 tax rate, many taxpayers will face hardships.

Payne said he and his wife immigrated to the U.S. from Canada on green cards when they were both 24 when the hospital in their city closed. They arrived here with nothing, lived in a slum, had no car and walked everywhere. They eventually became citizens. He said everyone talks about layoffs as a dirty word, but layoffs are a reality.

“If layoffs need to be made, make them. Layoffs happen. The whole city should not be hijacked because of layoffs.”

Resident Gary Maheux said many residents are saddened that officials were unwilling to compromise and make tougher, long-term budget decisions that residents demanded.

He said the cuts made were short-term and represent small and temporary fixes.

“This kicked can will sting us with a vengeance next year, compounding our budget crisis, as there will be no more bailout from surplus funds and our roads will be in worse condition,” Maheux said.

He also urged cutting $30,000 for Waterville Main Street and said the city’s goal of maintaining the status quo is destroying taxpayers, who are the lifeblood of school funding.

“The taxpayers can no longer be viewed as cash cows,” he said.

But Hannah Heidt, chairwoman of the Waterville Democratic City Committee, said she would not be here had it not been for a teacher who paid attention to her and was able to do so because the class size was not too large. That teacher believed in her, and she believed in the teacher, Heidt said.

“When I was a junior in high school, a teacher saved my life,” she said.

Heidt said she knew her opinion was not popular, but she supported O’Donnell’s proposal to restore the $250,000.

Isgro said budget discussions had been going on for a long time in the city and it was time to wrap it up.

He said a resident had recommended the city form a task force to work with the city on the budget in the future. He said the reality is that the city needs strong schools and teachers and to question the budget is not to questions schools.

But, he said, there is a “grave, deeply moral issue with the overburden of taxation.”

“There are real stories about people who can’t afford their prescriptions,” he said, his voice breaking.

He paused, emotion welling up, and said, “Excuse me.”

At that, Payne spoke up from the audience. “It takes a real man to get choked up. Don’t feel bad,” he said.

Isgro went on to say he thought the city needed to stick to its original plan to approve a budget that results in a tax rate of $22.80 per $1,000 worth of assessed value.

“If that does not go forward, I will veto this budget,” he said.

Earlier, Payne said Councilor Dana Bushee, D-Ward 6, has a conflict of interest because she is a Jobs for Maine Graduates worker who will be employed at the city’s high school this year after previously working at an Augusta school, and therefor should not vote on the budget. He said the issue is an ethical one. The position is paid for by federal money, as well as some from the school system.

Bushee did not respond to his comment.

Before the council voted 6-1 on the proposed $37.6 million municipal and school budget, Bushee said she supports the idea of a task force, which she had discussed with her council predecessor, Eliza Mathias. Mathias recommended the task force to city officials.

Councilor Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 5, said he knocked on doors Tuesday in his neighborhood and talked to a person who was about to retire after having a business 35 years, but her taxes went up $2,500.

“She looked at me with tears and said, ‘I cannot retire; I cannot close my business.’ “

Mayhew, his voice raised in anger, said city officials must listen to constituents.

“This is about taxpayers. This is about putting your constituents first. This is why we sit here.”

Councilor Jackie Dupont, D-Ward 7, said she supports schools and thought it admirable O’Donnell sought to restore surplus money, but the city needs to get back to work, get a task force formed and be creative and strategic with the next budget.

“I believe in schools. I’m not anti-school, but we need to move forward,” she said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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