GARDINER — City officials continue to reshape Gardiner’s proposed spending plan to reduce the property tax rate for city taxpayers in the coming fiscal year.

On Wednesday, Interim City Manager Anne Davis and Finance Director Denise Brown brought a version of the proposed budget that would drop the city’s tax rate to $21.40 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation, lower than it was in the 2016 fiscal year.

But after discussion among members of the City Council, the two are expected to revise the spending plan again for consideration at the May 16 meeting.

When the proposed budget was introduced earlier this year, the priorities outlined in it added up to a 5.7 percent increase in the city’s operating budget and a 2.7 percent increase in the tax rate, taking from $22 to $22.60 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

To lower the tax rate, the budget version presented Wednesday included additional revenue sharing from the state of Maine and an additional $150,000 from the city’s savings; but it also removed the $15,000 for a broadband internet study, delayed an update for assessing software, removed two voting machines and included in a three-month delay in hiring an economic development director.

The cuts also included reducing proposed salary increases for the public works and library directors and the police chief by 1 percent.

It’s those proposed pay increases that have caught the attention of Gardiner taxpayers, who have been talking to elected officials.

“Was there any consideration of reducing them by more?” Mayor Thom Harnett said. “This is a reduction of an increase.”

Davis said while city employees get cost-of-living increases as well as step or merit increases, department heads do not.

The budget initially included a 9.8 percent increase for the public works director, a 6.3 percent increase for the police chief and 13.9 percent for the library director.

“I am worried about what the City Council is doing if we undo city manager decisions on raises for the past decade,” Harnett said.

By approving raises, he said, that would put management of department heads in the hands of the City Council rather than the city manager.

“I don’t know many people who got 15, 17 percent raises,” said At-large Councilor Tim Cusick. “I didn’t.”

The city now in the process of hiring a permanent city manager.

If that new city manager has a problem with what department heads are paid, Cusick said, that person can make the decision.

“I am stuck in a weird place,” Davis said. “I have been in the city manager’s position, just with ‘interim’ before the name. The problem is that if the money is not budgeted, the manager can give raises. Just for clarification, I have evaluated all the department heads. I am your de facto city manager, and I don’t feel like you are overriding the decisions of past city managers.”

City councilors also questioned the removal of funding for the broadband study and the voting machines, and they wanted to hear again the reasons for buying a loader for Public Works and a pickup truck for the Fire Department in the budget.

Davis said she originally had been reluctant to tap additional savings to balance the anticipated spending, but she was reminded that the source of that money was originally taxpayers.

“It was originally levied as tax and it’s appropriate for tax relief,” she said. “It’s taxes that should go back to the people if we don’t need it.”

Tapping an extra $150,000 would bring to $300,000 the amount taken from savings. While the fund balance is a one-time source of funding, it would be offset this year by the sale of lots in the city-owned Libby Hill Business Park.

District 1 Councilor Terry Berry said he doesn’t have a problem with using an appropriate amount of fund balance. “The budget is what it costs to run the city every day,” Berry said. “If you just take money out of savings, you are not scrutinizing the budget.”

A budget update is expected at the next Gardiner City Council meeting, on May 16.

A public hearing and first reading of the budget is expected June 6; and a second public hearing, a second reading and a vote on the budget is expected June 20.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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