AUGUSTA — Despite a $2.6 million — or 4.2 percent — increase in spending, the proposed city and school budget would require a property tax increase of only 0.6 percent, due to projected increases in revenues and the use of money unspent in previous years to offset increased spending.

About $150,000 is included in the budget for wages and benefits to add two new firefighter/paramedic positions in October. The staffing increase would help reduce overtime expenses, address an increase in the number of medical calls and add enough staff so a third ambulance — which now only operates during the day — can be available around-the-clock.

Fire Chief Roger Audette said the fire department has had about the same number of firefighter/paramedics since 2000, when the third ambulance was added and staffed for 12 hours a day. Since that time Audette said the number of calls has nearly doubled, to around 6,500 calls a year for fire and rescue calls. Most of the increased number of calls, he said, are medical calls, a trend driven in part by an increase in recent years in the number of housing complexes that cater to elderly residents in the city.

Audette said the two new firefighter/paramedics would likely work at the city’s newest station, North Station, where — without the new positions — staffing would typically be three firefighter/paramedics during the day and one at night. At times the current staffing at that station, City Manager William Bridgeo said, can drop to no staff at night. Audette said he’d like to have two staff at that station overnight.

The fire department is projected to be over budget by about $260,000 this year due in part to the increasing call volume and some work-related injuries, leading to significant overtime expenses. Bridgeo recommends increasing the overtime budget in the coming year by $143,000, to $568,000 — a 34-percent increase.

The budget also includes a combined increase of $560,000 — or 5.6 percent — up to $10.5 million, in spending for the police and fire departments, with 88 percent of the costs in those departments attributable to salaries and benefits.

Part of that increase is related to the city increasing pay for workers in those departments, out of concern the city’s pay rates had fallen behind those in other area communities, causing the city to lose employees to other municipalities and have a hard time attracting job candidates. The upcoming budget, which includes $254,000 to increase pay, would be the second year of the two-year phase-in of higher pay in those departments, which Bridgeo said has had the desired effect.

“With the market adjustment wage increases implemented over the current and upcoming fiscal years,” he said, “we are now no longer experiencing the crisis in recruitment and retention that was the case in the recent past.”

With the contracts for all eight bargaining units — representing the roughly 80 percent of city employees who are in a union — set to expire at the end of June, Bridgeo said there is money in the budget to accommodate anticipated cost-of-living wage adjustments for employees.

The non-grassy knoll at City Center in Augusta in this July 10, 2018 photo shows the damage created by grubs. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

The budget includes $45,000 in new funds to fight a grub infestation that swept through city parks, athletic fields and lawns last summer, wiping out grass and leaving behind large patches of barren brown ground.

Leif Dahlin, community services director, said the funds would be used to hire a professional to administer a grub-killing pesticide, and to plant new grass seed, “so we can get our grass back to what it needs to be.”

Bridgeo included, in the total budget proposal, the $31.6 million school budget approved by the school board in March. In Augusta, the school board approves the school budget but it is also subject to review by city councilors as part of the total budget. Spending in the school budget is up by $1.2 million, a 3.7 percent increase.

City councilors can, and often do, direct the school board to make reductions to the school budget after the board has approved it.

The proposed $65.3 million budget, which includes city and school spending as well as Augusta’s $1.6 million share of the Kennebec County budget — which is up by $47,500, or 3 percent — would require a 0.6 percent property tax increase, increasing the tax rate from $20.97 for every $1,000 of property value to $21.10. The owner of the average single-family home in Augusta, assessed at $130,000, if deducting $20,000 in value for the state homestead exemption, would see their taxes increase from $2,307 to $2,321, a $14 increase.

Increased revenues in multiple areas, together resulting in a $1.8 million — or 5.8 percent — projected revenue increase that will help prevent a larger local tax increase.

Revenue increases include $603,000 expected to result from an increase in the city’s taxable property value, from $1.499 billion to $1.528 billion. Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, said the tax base grew in part due to the construction of two new office buildings on Capitol Street.

Bridgeo and St. Pierre said revenue sharing from the state to municipalities is expected to increase, with Gov. Janet Mills calling, in her budget proposal, for a 25-percent increase in state revenue sharing. For Augusta, state revenue sharing is projected to increase by $347,000, to $1.5 million.

St. Pierre projects interest income for the city, from reserve funds and other money the city has on deposit, will increase by $526,000, due largely to the Federal Reserve raising short term interest rates.

The budget uses $3.2 million from city and school “surplus” funds left unspent in previous years to balance expenses. Bridgeo warns that much money likely won’t be available to use in the same way next year.

But overall Bridgeo, who is entering his 21st year in the job, said the budget strikes a balance between avoiding a huge hit for taxpayers while still funding the services they expect.

“I’m happy, notwithstanding that we have inflationary increases in our operations each year, that it looks like we’ll be able to hold the line, or just have a minor increase, in the tax rate this year,” he said. “I think people will appreciate that.”

City councilors are scheduled to begin their review of the budget April 9, starting with the school budget.

 

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]
Twitter: @kedwardskj

 

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