AUGUSTA — Proposed changes to the city and school budget would reduce the hit on property taxpayers from a nearly 7 percent increase to a just under 3 percent increase.

The changes were discussed by city councilors Wednesday and go to the school board for discussion May 30 before councilors consider adopting the budget on Thursday, May 31. Changes include a controversial proposal to cut the amount of money coming from property taxes to fund schools by $300,000 and trim $112,600 from the public works budget primarily by reducing funding for snow removal.

City Manager William Bridgeo’s initial $63 million budget proposal would increase taxes by 6.6 percent.

Bridgeo said Wednesday he’s heard from all councilors that a 6.6 percent property tax increase is too high, so he and other city staff have proposed cuts in some areas.

Councilors discussed budget changes Wednesday that could bring the tax increase down to 2.91 percent, which would result in a tax rate of $20.97 for every $1,000 of property value. That, in turn, would result in a tax increase for the owner of an approximately $105,000 home in Augusta of $72.

The proposed cuts include a $100,000 cut in snow removal funding, from the $1.4 million proposed in Bridgeo’s initial budget, which was a $388,000 increase over the current year’s budget. However this year an increased need for snow removal resulted in the current year’s snow removal budget being overspent by about $450,000.

Last year city officials made a concerted effort to try to address complaints from residents about snow removal being inadequate in previous years.

The snow removal budget cuts proposed include $44,000 for salt, reducing the amount of salt for removing ice from city streets by 700 tons, from 5,000 tons. Lesley Jones, public works director, said the city would put less sand and salt down on straightaways in neighborhoods, so some ice may remain on those areas of road for longer periods of time.

Another $45,000 would be cut from funds to hire contractors to help with snow removal. Jones said that would result in the department scrapping plans to contract out one plow route. The city has had trouble, in recent years, finding enough commercially licensed plow truck drivers.

The proposed $300,000 cut in tax money for schools is controversial, not because of the amount proposed to be cut, but because of disagreement on how the reduction should be made.

Edward Hastings, school board chairman, said during a joint meeting of city and school officials Tuesday the board would likely, if the council directed it to cut $300,000, take that $300,000 from the schools’ fund balance, or surplus account, rather than cut expenditures by that amount. That would reduce the impact on taxpayers by $300,000, but also take $300,000 from the fund balance that thus won’t be available to use in the future.

In Augusta, city councilors approve the total city and school budget, and determine how much tax dollars the schools receive, but don’t have authority to change how the school budget is spent. That authority belongs to the school board.

Some councilors, however, said they believe $300,000 in expenses should be cut from the $30.8 million school budget, instead of taking that $300,000 from fund balance.

“In my mind they need to reduce their total expenditures, by $300,000,” said Corey Wilson, at-large board member. “I don’t want them to tap their fund balance.”

Wilson later softened his stance, suggesting he might be open to taking $150,000 from the school fund balance and directing the school board to cut expenditures by $150,000, to find compromise that could lead to a unanimous vote by the council on the total city and school budget.

At-Large Councilor Jennifer Day said she’d let the school board and the school’s business manager decide, and “if they feel it’s prudent to use fund balance, then I’d support them with that.”

Efforts to balance the budget were boosted by an unexpected $30.3 million increase in the city’s total taxable valuation, which is expected to produce about $600,000 more in property tax revenues than first budgeted.

Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, said much of the increase is due to Central Maine Power Co. investing in new business equipment located in Augusta including new computers and smart meters.

The full initial budget proposal is on the city’s website.

Other proposed changes to the initial budget recommended by Bridgeo include:

• increasing money for fuel by $33,000 because the price of fuel has gone up;

• increasing the city’s share of the Kennebec County budget by $14,000 because the budget has been approved by the county budget committee and;

• cutting both the police and fire department budgets by $12,500 each, which Bridgeo said could be absorbed by both departments due to anticipated staff turnover.

Councilors expressed concerns about adopting one of Bridgeo’s proposed changes — a $25,000 cut to the parks and cemeteries budget by eliminating plans to add two additional seasonal full-time workers and a vehicle. The expense is aimed at enhancing beautification around the city, which St. Pierre noted was a top council goal for the year.

Mayor David Rollins said that money is needed so the city can start to address areas that were once lawn but are now largely bare on some city properties, including on the rotaries and on the approach to Water Street. He and Bridgeo said the city has been hit with a grub problem that has destroyed lawns.

“We’ve got a real problem; there are giant patches of bare earth, those things need to be repaired,” Rollins said. “It’s awful. And I don’t see anybody working on it.”

St. Pierre said part of the problem is the city struggles to hire enough staff to work in its parks, because there is a tight labor market for seasonal labor.

Bridgeo said the city hasn’t had the funds to fight off the grub problem.

“We do our very best to manage within the budgeted allocations we have,” he said. “If we had a whole lot of money our lawns would look like Kennebec Savings’ lawns. But we don’t. And I’m sorry, that’s where we are.”

Bridgeo said he would work to, before next week’s scheduled vote on the budget, find another way to come up with the $25,000.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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