WATERVILLE — Waterville Board of Education members Wednesday night expressed concern about what a citizen-initiated budget task force will look like, what it plans to do and what its powers will be, in light of the fact that councilors and school board members are trained to scrutinize and develop budgets.

Certain money must go to specific places in a budget, and there’s only so much money to go around, school board members said.

The board discussed the task force Wednesday after School Superintendent Eric Haley explained that the City Council on Tuesday voted 7-0 to create the task force to help evaluate the city’s financial condition and help spread awareness of budget issues. The task force would serve in an advisory capacity only, according to City Manager Michael Roy.

Haley said residents showed up at council meetings expressing concern that the city’s high tax rate and citywide revaluation were increasing some people’s taxes significantly. He also said there was a lot of debate about how the city raises money to support schools and city operations, and what the schools’ and city’s core missions are.

Two or three councilors and two or three school board members will serve on the task force, as well as some residents. Ex-officio, or nonvoting, members would include Haley; Roy; the city’s finance director, Chuck Calkins; and the school’s finance director, Paula Pooler. The school board would get to choose what members would be on the task force, he said.

Haley said he plans to meet with Roy and Mayor Nick Isgro at 7:30 a.m. Friday to talk about the details of the task force.

“What is it they get to vote on?” school board member Joan Phillips-Sandy asked Haley. “Who’s going to make the rules?

Hers was just one of many questions school board members and Haley had about the budget task force. Board member Pam Trinward asked, referring to the task force: “Who’s going to pay for it?”

“I don’t know,” Haley replied. He said he thinks some people advocating for the task force think the schools and city have more fat than they should have or have strayed from their core missions.

Phillips-Sandy said when she started on the board — about 18 years ago — it took a while to understand the budget. Each year, four to six budget meetings are held to familiarize new and old members with the budget and she would hate to see Haley and Pooler be required to spend that kind of time explaining the budget to the task force. She suggested the task force attend several school board meetings to hear such presentations on the budget.

Trinward and Haley said they hope the task force will take a wide view of budgets and consider that 30-plus percent of properties in the city are not subject to taxation, that state revenue sharing to the city has been cut, and that the school system has to come up with money for special education, for instance, when the federal government actually mandates how special education is to operate.

Haley said schools are not getting federal money the government said they would get to support mandates.

It is important, Trinward said, to look at surrounding communities and what they spend on education.

“What do our numbers look like in comparison?” she asked. “I think if you have those kinds of conversations, it could be valuable … but if you start talking about line items, like what we are spending on feeding kids — we’re not spending anything. The federal government is.”

Phillips-Sandy said Waterville spends less per pupil than surrounding towns do. Some things cannot be changed, such as the number of tax-exempt entities in the city, she said.

“We need to talk about ways of increasing revenues, other than on the backs of the taxpayers,” she said.

Former Ward 6 City Councilor Eliza Mathias initiated the idea of creating the task force toward the end of the contentious municipal and school budget process for 2016-17. She said at Tuesday’s council meeting that the task force would focus on budget issues from a proactive, rather than a reactive, perspective.

Meanwhile, some residents at that meeting urged city officials to revise the city’s policy regarding conflict of interest, as they believe it is improper for councilors to vote on budgets if they have a spouse, significant other or family member working for the city or schools. They said their comments were not personal, but they think the city should avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.

City Solicitor William Lee issued an opinion that he did not think a councilor has a per se conflict in voting on the school budget because the councilor has some financial connection to the school department. Lee did say that is it possible a councilor might have some connection that would create a conflict and that each situation is different. According to Lee and Roy, if the majority of councilors thinks a councilor has a conflict with a specific issue, then that councilor may not vote on it.

The wife of Council Chairman John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, is a teacher in Waterville schools. O’Donnell, a lawyer, said Wednesday that he does not believe that presents a conflict, and he has spoken with Lee and other lawyers who agree.

“It’s very clear that if your board doesn’t actually deal with the specific funding for the school, there’s no conflict,” he said.

Those who insisted the city revise its policy point to other municipalities including Bangor and Auburn, which do not allow councilors to have a spouse, family member or significant other work for the city.

Meanwhile, Councilor Dana Bushee, D-Ward 6, started this school year as a Jobs for Maine’s Graduates instructor at Waterville Senior High School and is paid with local and federal funds. She declined to comment Tuesday night on the conflict issue.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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