AUGUSTA — A proposed $63 million city and school budget would increase property taxes by 6.6 percent.

City Manager William Bridgeo, who delivered the budget to city councilors late Friday night, acknowledges the proposed 6.6 percent increase in taxes is uncharacteristically high for Augusta, where, over the last 20 years, the tax increase has averaged around 1.9 percent a year.

He said much of the increase is attributable to a jump in wages for some city employees, including police officers and firefighters, who during contract negotiations were able to show that over the past decade or so their pay had fallen to as much as 20 to 25 percent below what their counterparts in other, similar communities in the region make.

City councilors approved wage increases over the next two years to seek to bring more city employees up to market rates of pay. Bridgeo said an increase of about $150,000 in police officer wages and about $300,000 in firefighter wages accounts for $450,000 of the proposed $835,000 increase in taxes needed to fund the city budget.

The other major increase proposed in Bridgeo’s draft is $388,000 more for snow removal in the public works budget.

Bridgeo said this year the city took several steps to improve snow removal after having provided what he described as an unacceptable level of service the previous winter, because of a lack of funding, which prompted complaints from residents. He said those changes, combined with the difficult winter, resulted in public works overspending the snow removal account by $500,000 this winter.

So he proposes to increase the budget for snow removal by $388,000 next year.

“If you take the wage adjustments made to get our employees (up to pay comparable to other municipalities in the region) and the increase in snow removal, that’s most of the increase” in the city budget, Bridgeo said Friday. “If you don’t have those things, you wouldn’t have an increase in taxation” to fund city services.

Overall, the budget is up by $3.3 million, a 5.5 percent increase.

The school budget, approved by the Board of Education on March 21, accounts for about $31 million of the overall budget, and 3.6 percent of the proposed increase in property taxes.

The combined city and school budget is subject to city councilors’ approval. In the past, councilors often have directed the school board to make cuts to the school budget after the board has approved it.

Superintendent James Anastasio said school officials sought this year to begin a multi-year process of decreasing class sizes in schools by hiring additional teachers.

The school budget, according to Bridgeo, also includes funding for a “one-time teachers’ salary market adjustment” for teachers, who are in contract negotiations now with the board.

The property tax rate would increase from $20.38 per $1,000 of property value to $21.72 under the proposed budget.

As proposed, the city and school budgets, combined with Augusta’s $1.6 million share of the Kennebec County budget, would increase the taxes on the average residential property in Augusta, with a taxable value of $105,000 after the state’s $20,000 homestead exemption is figured in, from $2,140 to $2,281, a $141 increase over the current year.

The entire proposed budget will be posted on the city’s website Monday, according to Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager.

The budget next goes to city councilors for review. That process is scheduled to begin April 9, with a review involving school officials and the education spending portion of the budget.

After a review over several planned meetings, councilors are expected to vote on a final budget in late May.

Councilors often request changes to the budget. Last year, for example, Bridgeo’s initially proposed $59.7 budget would have required a 5.23 percent tax increase, but the $59.3 million budget ultimately approved by councilors required a 2.96 percent tax increase.

“You, as our elected officials, carry the ultimate responsibility of finding the proper balance between tax burden and level of service and it is my job and that of our professional staff to help you do so — and so we will,” Bridgeo wrote in his budget message to councilors.

The school portion of the budget also requires approval by voters in a citywide referendum June 12.

Bridgeo, noting other area municipalities also are facing budgets with potential property tax increases, said in recent years the state has shifted more of the tax burden from income and sales taxes to property taxes, by reducing revenue sharing funds the state provides to municipalities. He said before the state cut income taxes in 2011, the city got about $3 million a year in state revenue sharing but now is expected to get only about $1 million.

That, he said, has left municipalities with the choice of either raising property taxes or scaling back services that residents want and need.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

filed under: