WINSLOW — Town councilors have approved the first reading of a $25.14 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year that would increase the tax rate by 4 percent.

The $25,145,337 budget would require a 4.18 percent increase in the tax rate, pushing it from $17.94 per $1,000 of property valuation to $18.69. This means that the median household in Winslow, with a property valued at $146,000, would have to pay an additional $109.50 in property taxes under the budget proposal. There is potential for the rate to be lowered in May, depending on developments to the school budget, officials said.

The change was discussed during the council’s regular meeting Monday evening. Ken Fletcher, an at-large councilor and former state lawmaker, attributed the rate increase to cuts to the state’s Municipal Revenue Sharing program and a failure of the Legislature to “fully fund K-12 education to the voter-approved 55 percent level.”

Ken Fletcher

Citing a report from the Maine Municipal Association, Fletcher noted that Winslow has lost $2,577,804 to revenue sharing reductions over the 2015 to 2019 fiscal years and is expected to miss out on $494,206 in the 2020 fiscal year.

Gov. Janet Mills’ budget proposal has set Municipal Revenue Sharing for the upcoming year to 2.5 percent of state income and sales tax revenue — up from 2 percent in 2015-2019, but below the 5 percent outlined in state law.

“If the Municipal Revenue Sharing had been restored to full funding as had been scheduled … (it would) have eliminated the need for the property tax increase,” Fletcher said.

In an April 3 email to councilors and the school board, Fletcher urged officials to contact legislators about the issue, so that “the property taxpayers of Winslow would not need to endure an additional burden to support education and critical services.” In the email, he called on the school board and the Town Council to work together to push the town’s legislators — Sen. Scott Cryway, R-Benton, and Rep. Catherine Nadeau, D-Winslow — to “only support a state budget that fully funds education to the 55 percent level” and increases revenue sharing. Fletcher repeated this message to attendees of the council meeting Monday night.

The Legislature’s Taxation Committee heard testimony Wednesday on a number of bills that would fully restore revenue to those levels.

The budget for Winslow’s school district is $16,318,444, which will be offset by $8,267,408 of revenue from the state. Voter-approved bond payments for the school renovations and “minor capital projects” account for $488,670 of the overall figure.

Superintendent Peter Thiboutot announced that the insurance rate for the school district came in lower than anticipated — at zero — but has not been finalized yet and will be discussed further at the next school board meeting on April 22, and revised for the Town Council’s second budget reading in May. This could shave as much as $141,899 off the School Department’s request, which was based on a maximum insurance rate of the 7 percent.

Peter Thiboutot

“Who says the glass isn’t half full?” Thiboutot said Monday.

No updates to the school renovation project were shared at the meeting Monday night, but a memo distributed to council members noted that construction is on track for mid-June and that the updated budget will be completed by the end of the month. The architect and construction manager continue to pursue a plan referred to as “Option 3” that includes a band and chorus classroom addition, a gymnasium expansion and a new freezer but does not include a new auditorium or a cafeteria.

“Working closely with school administrators, staff and other stakeholders, (Stephen Blatt Architects) and (Ledgewood Construction) have continued to refine the project scope in an ongoing effort to reduce costs since Option #3 is still $775,000 over budget,” the report written by architect Doug Breer reads. “For instance, the band/chorus addition is now only a band room addition and the existing music classroom will become the chorus room. Several areas of renovation at the HS have been either deleted entirely or scaled back. We’ve also identified and developed in more detail the renovations to Winslow Elementary School necessary for the accommodation of the sixth grade.”

Thiboutot agreed to a request from Fletcher to supply timelines on the project to the council as soon as he obtains that information from the architect and construction manager.

 

OTHER TOWN BUSINESS

In what was presented as an unavoidable decision, the council passed the first reading of an order to increase the sewer rate from $3 to $4.50 per 100 cubic feet, effective July 1. If it is approved at the second reading, Town Manager Mike Heavener said users will pay roughly an additional $120 per year, based on an estimated annual use of 8,000 cubic feet. This is expected generate $100,000 annually to support capital improvements to the sewer system and help pay off the voter-approved bond. The Vassalboro Sanitary District, which consists of 192 users, also will be affected by the decision, though it is charged as a single user, and Heavener said “it is up to them how they want to distribute the cost to their ratepayers.”

“It was after a lot of debate on the aging sewer system that we felt we needed in the future to put capital into it, or it will collapse,” Councilor Ray Caron said. “They’re very old in the town of Winslow.”

Last January, a sinkhole off Halifax Street exposed pipes and nearly caused a break in the line.

In other business, the council unanimously authorized a contract with Kennebec Valley Council of Governments to update the town’s comprehensive plan, which was last revised in 2008. The costs can be covered by the town’s TIF funds, and the expense is not to exceed $25,000. An order to re-employ Shawn O’Leary as police chief also unanimously passed with an amendment extending the radius a chief must live within from 25 miles to 35 miles of Winslow.

“I think now with the level of technology, communications capabilities and the structures in place … it’s not a realistic expectation (for a chief to live within 25 miles) and not something we need,” said Fletcher, who introduced the amendment. “That 35-mile radius would still provide proximity and timeliness for the chief.”

First readings of revisions to the town’s zoning ordinance — one to add contract zoning and one to add “temporary itinerant vendor” and “seasonal itinerant vendor” as allowable uses in the mixed use zoning district — passed. The former is authorized by state legislation and used by Waterville currently, but it has not been used in Winslow, according to Heavener. The layter, Heavener said, was likely “an oversight; it just got left out.” The town currently allows these categories in the mixed-use zoning district.

“Oftentimes (contract zoning) can prevent the need to go in and actually rezone an area,” he told the council. “It will allow us to take a case-by-case basis for a particular property — for example, the needs of a property owner in terms of business or other zoning issues. It will also allow us, if we sell our industrial building, to come up with a zoning contract that allows us to keep the building connected until such time as we separate it.”

The council approved the first reading of an order to authorize the expenditure of up to $1.2 million on reclaiming, grading and repaving Benton Avenue from Roderick Road to the Benton town line. Up to $500,000 of the Benton Avenue money will come from the Maine Department of Transportation. The discussion generated a conversation about several other battered town roads that need attention.

Public Works Director Paul Fongemie said that “there’s way more bad (roads) than there’s money for,” adding that “it’s not a cop-out; it’s just a reality.” He said the state is out of cold patch and that his department has been filling potholes with gravel and sand temporarily until a shipment arrives in two weeks.

During public comment time, a man who lives on Bassett Road requested that the street, where he said potholes are being filled by residents themselves, be attended to. Councilor Trish Welsh reiterated that concern and others she has received from constituents in District 1. Fletcher recommended putting out a five-year projection for road projects.

The council approved the first reading of an order to accept a labor agreement between the town and its full-time police officers, which would be effective from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2022.

In its final actions of the night, the council approved two resolutions. The first supported the historic preservation committee conducting an oral history project to record Winslow residents’ memories of various events. The recordings would be able to be referenced by students in the district and the general public for research projects. Caron, who is involved with the committee, said it is pursuing grant funding and is in the preliminary stages of organizing the project.

“Whenever somebody passes away, we lose that history, so we’re trying to make a concerted effort to capture (the stories) … of people who have sweated and put their lives … into the town of Winslow,” Caron said.

The second resolution granted a restaurant liquor license to Lobster Trap & Steakhouse on 21 Bay St.

 

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins


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