WATERVILLE — Mayor Nick Isgro says he will veto any budget that represents a tax increase of more than 3 percent, a promise challenged by Waterville officials and city councilors who question his leadership, as he has not said how he would reduce the budget amid false claims he has made.

Isgro posted a message Wednesday on Facebook that inaccurately says the council voted to start the process of raising property taxes by 10 percent.

In fact, the council took a first vote Tuesday to approve a proposed $41.9 million municipal and school budget that represents an 8.3 percent tax rate increase over the current tax rate that covers this year’s $39.9 million budget. That number could change before the council takes a final vote June 19.

Isgro faces a recall vote in Tuesday’s election. Those who began the effort to recall him say they did so because of his social media posts, including one directed at a survivor of a Florida school shooting that said: “Eat it.” Isgro, however, has been calling the recall initiative an effort to oust him so he cannot veto the budget.

“Sadly, those who are working with outside special interest groups to seize control of Our City are continuing their pattern of sowing fear and intimidating residents like they did with their hired outside signature gatherers,” Isgro’s Facebook post says.

City Manager Michael Roy on Thursday took issue with Isgro’s statement, saying it is not true.

“I’m shocked and saddened by the claim from our mayor that the people are working with outside interests to control the city,” he said. “I cannot understand how he could say that — period.”

Isgro’s post also claims the council scheduled the final budget vote for after Tuesday’s election to try to stop him from vetoing the budget.

“They want me out of the way as Your Voice protecting our way of life and are hoping their political recall scheme funded by outside groups is successful,” it says.

But Roy said Isgro’s claim that the council scheduled a budget vote for June 19, after the election, to stop him from vetoing the budget is false. Roy and the city’s finance director, Heather Rowden, set the budget review and voting schedule many months ago, according to Roy.

“The budget votes for June 5 and 19 were put on a schedule developed in January,” Roy said.

If the council on June 19 approves the proposed $41.9 million budget, the current tax rate of $23.33 per $1,000 worth of property valuation would increase to $25.27, a difference of $1.94 per $1,000.

That means a property owner whose home is valued at $100,000 would pay $2,527 in taxes, an increase of $194.

If the tax rate increase were to be 3 percent, or a 0.7 mill increase, the tax rate would be $24.03 per $1,000 worth of valuation, according to Rowden.

Rowden said Thursday that a taxpayer with property worth $100,000 would then pay $2,403 in taxes — an increase of $70.

The budget would be a flat $41 million with a 3 percent tax increase, but the $41.9 million budget would have to be cut by nearly $900,000 to get to that point, according to Rowden.

Roy said there are only two choices for getting to a 3 percent tax increase — using more surplus money or cutting services and employees.

“The city does not have as much an expenditure problem as it does a revenue problem,” Roy said. “We’re starting out with a lot less revenue this year than we did a year ago, and that’s because we have been using one-time monies.”

Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro gavels down City Manager Mike Roy after asking him to take the lectern to clarify a proposed outdoor dining ordinance during a budget meeting Tuesday in the City Council chamber at The Center. Staff file photo by Michael G. Seamans

ATTACKING COUNCILORS

Meanwhile, Isgro slams the council in his Facebook post, which contains the error of saying the budget the council approved represents a 10 percent tax increase.

“Today, they and other insiders are congratulating themselves on cutting a proposed tax increase from 13% to 10% by shifting funds around and using other accounting gimmicks. Even though City Manager Mike Roy admitted these tweaks will result in a ‘big hole next year’ — meaning even more of an increase — the council and their friends in the media are celebrating this tax hike as a major accomplishment, saying 10% is a ‘far cry’ from 13%.”

Rowden said she and Roy started with a budget with a 3.14 mill increase, which represented a 13.5 increase in the tax rate. At Tuesday’s council meeting, they presented a budget with a 2.23 mill increase, which represented an increase of 9.6 percent in the tax rate.

But the council amended the proposal to propose a 1.94 mill increase and approved it unanimously in a 7-0 vote. That increase represents an 8.3 percent increase in the tax rate, which stands at $25.27 per $1,000 worth of valuation.

The current budget of $39.9 million the council approved last year represented a 0.53 mill increase over the previous budget, but the city used one-time surplus money to reach that figure, according to Rowden. She said it used $780,000 of surplus money and $910,000 from money the city got from discontinuing its contract with Penobscot Energy Recovery Co.

Isgro’s Facebook post says the “10” percent increase “does not take into consideration an upcoming $7 million bonded debt scheme that is likely to hike taxes another 3%+.”

He was referring to a discussion that took place at Tuesday’s council meeting that started when Isgro asked Roy about a $7 million bond discussed recently with the council. He asked Roy on Tuesday if he had any estimates about what a bond payment would be.

Roy said the $7 million figure was the “result of every department head preparing a wish list” of items, and that the figure is not cast in stone.

“I doubt all items will be approved,” Roy said. “Could be $7 (million), could be $4 (million), could do a bond of two separate issues, 3 and 3.”

Rowden said there are a number of ways a bond could be done so there would not be a huge, immediate hit to taxpayers. Roy said the city also will be retiring another bond, and that will lessen the burden.

“This will take some of our debt service down,” he said.

Rowden said Thursday that the city bonds every couple of years, and when the city bonds again, it would start making payments on the bond in fiscal year 2019-20.

Isgro did not respond Thursday to requests for comment on how he might cut the budget so it represents a 3 percent tax rate increase.

Waterville City Manager Mike Roy speaks at the lectern Tuesday after being asked to clarify a proposed outdoor dining ordinance and budget details during a budget meeting in the City Council chamber at The Center. Staff file photo by Michael G. Seamans

COUNCILORS REACT TO POST

Councilor Jackie Dupont, D-Ward 7, weighed in on Isgro’s promise to veto any tax rate increase above 3 percent by saying in the three years she has served on the council, councilors have never accepted and used the manager’s initial budget.

Roy initially had prepared a proposed budget that represented a 13.5 percent tax rate increase but made it clear that the numbers would change during the budget process. That 13.5 percent, he said, represented what would be needed to continue operating the city and continuing programs.

Dupont said Roy’s initial budget was essentially a “talking point to begin discussion.”

“The 13%, presented in March, was strictly to inform the council as to what it would take to maintain services and infrastructure,” Dupont said in an email to the Morning Sentinel. “This year, despite spending less, the city is netting a loss due to a significant shortfall in revenue. The mayor has not proposed which departments he would eliminate to reduce the mill rate increase. The mayor has recently posted online that he will veto any increase over 3%. Is he directing the council to create a volunteer fire department? While I understand that this is the council’s budget, the council would appreciate some guidance and leadership regarding which departments to gut to get to 3%.”

Dupont went on to say councilors have worked hard on the budget, together, as reflected in the unanimous support given to it Tuesday night.

Councilor Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 4, said Thursday that he thinks further cuts to the proposed budget could not be made without “major changes in the city’s infrastructure, of how the city is managed.” He said he does not know if more cuts can be made to schools, but likely personnel and programs would have to be cut. Asked if Isgro has said anything to him about what he would cut in the budget, Mayhew said he has not.

“He has not talked to me at all,” Mayhew said. “He’s kind of been focused in on his own agenda. We talk occasionally, but we don’t talk about city business. He hasn’t divulged anything to me about what he’d do to bring it down to 3 percent. I think it would require personnel cuts and department charges or programs on the school side. That’s the best analysis I have.”

Council Chairman Steve Soule, D-Ward 1, said he has not heard Isgro say what he thinks could be cut to get the budget to a 3 percent tax increase.

“I would welcome any concrete plans that he has to reduce the budget,” Soule said Thursday. “The council and mayor work together. All of our decisions and discussions have included all of us.”

Soule said he does not think it is possible to cut the tax increase to 3 percent “without significant cuts being made — things that will change people’s lives.”

“Are we willing to not plow our roads?” Soule asked. “Are we willing to not have a fire department? I’m not.”

Councilor Lauren Lessing, D-Ward 3, also said she has not heard anything in the way of guidance from Isgro about further cuts to the budget that would reduce the tax increase to or below 3 percent.

“City councilors worked hard and across party lines to ensure that we are actually spending less this year than last,” Lessing said in an email. “What we have on our hands is a revenue shortage — one that has been exacerbated by rising insurance costs and the state’s continued unwillingness to give Waterville residents our legally mandated share of our own sales tax revenue. There is simply no spending to cut without gutting city departments. If Mayor Isgro is suggesting that we do this, I would like him to say so honestly and clearly.”

Councilor John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, concurred Thursday that Isgro has given councilors no indication of what should be cut in the budget, which O’Donnell sees as “a very bare-bones budget based on a lack of revenue.”

“I really believe the mayor in his heart of hearts agrees that what we have is a clean budget,” O’Donnell said. “However, as you know, he has this recall, which for him is a referendum on taxes. I think he’s trying to defeat the recall by framing it as a referendum on taxes. I think he would acknowledge, as we all have, that the income isn’t there. We don’t have the revenue. We’ve been eating surplus for years to make ends meet and not raise taxes.”

O’Donnell said Isgro is trying to save his mayoral position by saying he will veto a budget, but cutting more would mean cutting employees and taking from departments such as public works and firefighting. O’Donnell said the city can’t make ends meet at 22 mills.

“We can’t do it,” he said. “I would encourage everyone to get out on June 12 and vote in the election because honestly, I think the mayor is simply trying to salvage his job and is not being realistic in terms of city finances.”

School Superintendent Eric Haley did not return a call Thursday seeking comment about how further cuts to the school budget would affect employees and programs.

Councilor Winifred Tate, D-Ward 6, said after Tuesday’s budget vote that councilors are concerned about any increase in the tax rate but have worked together diligently in meetings, looking at any possible ways to minimize the increase.

“Any further reduction in the budget will mean gutting personnel and programs that keep the city running,” Tate said.

Councilor Nathaniel White, D-Ward 2, did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.

SEEKING RESOLUTION

Hilary Koch, who helped initiate the petition for recall, said Thursday that what Isgro is doing is “more of the same.”

“To refuse to respond or answer questions — that’s problematic,” Koch said. “If the only form of communication we have with our mayor is through social media and he refuses to respond to his own comments on social media, that’s a problem.”

Koch said Isgro’s answer is a veto, but that doesn’t solve the problems Waterville faces.

“The City Council and council chair already made a statement indicating the mayor has made misleading statements about the recall as a means to increase taxes,” she said. “His statements continue to mislead voters, to deflect, attack and clearly try to garner votes rather than looking to lead.”

Koch said taxes are important and she doesn’t know anyone who wants higher taxes, including herself.

“But if we’re talking about taxes, we need someone who can show the bigger picture of their actions to Waterville,” she said. “It can’t be a matter of, this is what I stand for on social media and this is what I stand for in a council meeting. I’m not an outsider. I live in Waterville and I think many people feel it’s essential to have someone who leads by example not only with their actions, but their words. He has refused to address our concerns. He has pivoted and shifted the discussion to deflect it to anything other than what it is really about, which is the fact he has failed to do his job as a good ambassador for the city.”

City councilors and city employees take their jobs seriously, and to suggest there is a conspiracy is insulting to the people who put up with a lot, according to Koch.

“There’s a lot of high emotion on all sides in this, and that’s why it’s important to try and keep these issues separate,” she said. “The (budget) problems Waterville is facing aren’t going to go away, but the problem of whether we have someone who represents us who shows empathy and kindness, that is something we can fix.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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