GARDINER — Facing a property tax rate increase of 5.8%, Gardiner councilors have asked the city manager and department heads to come up with scenarios of what cuts at different levels would look like.

With the proposed budgets for both the Gardiner area school district and Kennebec County taking shape, it appears that Gardiner could have a property tax of rate of $22.65 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, up $1.25 per $1,000 from the current $21.40 per $1.000 of assessed valuation.

“Budget time is never an easy time,” At-large Councilor Tim Cusick said. “The department heads and everybody does a good job presenting the budget, but the natives are restless in the city; $1.20 on the mil rate is not a good thing.”

Cusick kicked off Wednesday’s budget debate — the first of two scheduled sessions — with the suggestion that the city’s department heads need to make some cuts.

A year ago, both Gardiner city officials and School Administrative District 11 officials created budgets that brought the city’s tax rate down. For the municipal portion of the budget, a proposed 60-cent increase to the tax rate was pared down to a 60-cent decrease.

Such a swing is not likely this year.

Earlier in the week, officials from the four municipalities making up School Administrative District 11 were invited to meet with the school board and district officials to hear an overview of the district’s proposed $25.7 million spending plan. The plan is about 3.8 % higher than the current budget. More than half of the revenue needed to pay for that spending — $14.1 million — comes from state education subsidies. The remaining revenue would come from a variety of sources, including student tuition and gate fees. But the biggest share of that portion is the $10 million that would come from taxpayers in Gardiner, West Gardiner, Randolph and Pittston.

At that meeting, district Superintendent Patricia Hopkins outlined some of the elements in the district’s proposed spending plan. They include adding a social worker and a board-certified behavioral analyst for the elementary grades to help address the emotional and social needs of the students, and not filling two teaching positions following the retirements of two teachers. The district also is planning to replace the roof at the River View Community School and paving the parking lot at Gardiner Area High School, among other things.

On Wednesday, Cusick said he was disappointed that school leaders would not work with city officials more so that the burden of cuts wouldn’t rest solely on the shoulders of the City Council.

“I’m not sure that’s in the cards,” he said. “I didn’t get that impending warm feeling the other night.”

Other councilors said they were interested in seeing reduction proposals, ranging from asking for a 1% decrease from all departments, asking city staffers to identify cuts for the council to review, or pursuing cuts that are designed to bring down the tax rate by specific levels. Other options were cutting or delaying proposed vehicle purchases and holding vacant positions open.

“I am not especially interested in a really aggressive discussion of level of service, because we’ve done that year after year, time and time again,” At-large Councilor Jon Ault said. “Every time we have public input on level of service, it’s do not cut, but rather grow.”

Early in the city’s budget review, City Manager Christine Landes stressed to councilors that about 74% of the added spending proposed comes either from negotiated pay raises for the city’s union-member employees or from factors outside the city’s control such as workers’ compensation rate increases and the increased cost of public safety dispatching through the state’s Regional Communication Center.

District 1 City Councilor Terry Berry had asked city officials during budget workshops in April what the effect of refinancing some of the city’s debt would be and whether that might result in savings.

Landes said some bonds have been financed through the Maine Municipal Bond Bank, which doesn’t allow bonds to be refinanced. Instead, it refinances at its own discretion, and those actions have saved the city more than $130,000 over the years.

In looking at the city’s other bonds with more than two years of payments left, refinancing would cost $195,000 over 12 years. Savings would be seen in the first six years, but that turns in year 7, she said. Those bonds include street and sidewalk paving projects, vehicles and the LED streetlights.

District 2 Councilor Amy Rees said she’s opposed to borrowing money to save money.

“It kicks the can down the road, and it’s poor fiscal policy,” Rees said.

At-large Councilor Maryann White asked about the status of a bill in the Legislature brought by Rep. Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, a former Gardiner mayor, to fund and restore state-municipal revenue sharing to its full 5 percent.

Landes said the fate of that bill is unclear because it has not been reported out of committee, but the proposed city budget includes revenue sharing at 2.5 %.

Mayor Patricia Hart said she knows that Gardiner residents are struggling, and an increase in property taxes would add to their burdens.

“I had messages from two people on my answering machine last night,” Hart said. “They were desperate. They couldn’t pay their bills, they couldn’t pay their medicine, they couldn’t pay their child support, and they wanted to know where they were with their health care status.”

Hart said she was able to refer them on for help to the state government agencies and to Harnett.

“That first gentleman was just so desperate, and that voice is still ringing in my ears,” Hart said. “This is a community that doesn’t have a lot of money. It’s a very needy community, and I know they need the roads and they appreciate the services, and that’s why they are here.

“Once again, we’re here at a budget discussion, feeling like it’s a horrible choice. But there are many people for whom the $1.25 is a very big deal,” she added. “As the other councilors have said so eloquently this evening, it’s our job to say, ‘What if we lower it from what’s proposed?'”

When the council meets May 22 for a second public hearing and debate on the proposed spending plan, it will review proposals for cuts.

“I think I keep hearing that no matter what angle we come from, we’d like to see what a $200,000 decrease to the budget would look like, and what a $100,000 decrease to the budget would look like,” Hart said. “Everything’s on the table, but we don’t want to dictate and reach in to say cut this or cut that.”

Hart urged posting meeting notices widely and asking people to attend the meetings.

“It feels like we’re missing a piece of the story without the public,” she said. “We make better decisions when the public is here with us.”

Throughout this year’s budget review, members of the public have been absent from the workshops and the discussions to date about the budget.

The budget goes to a public hearing and a first reading June 5. Another public hearing and the second and final reading is scheduled for June 19.

All meetings are expected to start at 6 p.m.

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