AUGUSTA — City councilors approved a $65.2 million budget Thursday that is expected to result in no change to the tax rate.

The budget, approved by councilors after a half-hour-long meeting, reduces the amount of money needed from taxpayers by $195,000 compared to the proposal as first presented, and will keep the tax rate the same as it is now, $20.97 for every $1,000 of property value.

The flat tax rate comes despite an $2.5 million increase in expenditures for the city, schools, and Augusta’s share of the Kennebec County budget.

Mayor David Rollins said factors that helped the city avoid a tax increase despite the increase in expenditures included an increase in state revenue sharing and state funding for education, an increase in the city’s total property valuation because of new buildings increasing the tax base, and a new Greater Augusta Utility District system of charging for stormwater costs that he said district officials, working with city officials for the last year and a half, agreed to change to lessen the city’s costs despite an upcoming rate increase for users of the system.

Councilors voted 7-1 to approve the budget.

At-large Councilor Mark O’Brien praised city employees for their hard work on the budget and thanked his fellow councilors for working together to create and approve a budget with no tax increase.

“It’s no small feat to arrive at a 0% increase budget in these times,” he said.

Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins, the lone vote against the budget, said after the vote that city officials did a fantastic job with the budget, which he supports, but said he does not support the work done on the school side of the budget by school officials. He declined to elaborate further as councilors left council chambers to move into a nearby conference room for an executive session, unrelated to the budget, to discuss a real estate matter.

At-large Councilor Corey Wilson said he’d hoped to have a budget that resulted in a tax decrease but said he understood, after talking with City Manager William Bridgeo earlier Thursday, that a tax decrease this year would make it more difficult to budget in future years, and the need to set aside city and school funds for the future by avoiding tapping into more reserve funds this year.

“The economy is good right now, but everybody knows every time there is a good time, it is almost always followed by a decline, so it’s wise to put some money away,” Wilson said. “So I’m happy to support this budget.”

The city’s total property valuation is projected to increase for the coming year, by $2.7 million, bringing in an additional $56,400 in property tax revenue.

The budget takes $27,000 more than first proposed in revenue from the city’s child care program, which Bridgeo said has a strong, roughly $350,000 fund balance, and use that money to pay for extending the hours Lithgow Public Library is open, to all day on Saturdays. The library now is open only 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.

Cuts from the initial budget proposal included $10,000 in overtime funding for both the Police and Fire departments despite concerns that overtime costs have been rising, $20,000 in savings by leasing instead of buying a data storage device, $12,000 from not purchasing code enforcement software, a $5,000 reduction in money earmarked to help rid city lawns of a grub infestation, and $5,000 for signs.

The budget also will provide $87,000 less in education funding than was approved by the school board when it approved the school budget, meaning there will need to be that much in cuts, or revenue increases, or a combination of both, from the school budget.

In Augusta, the school board approves the school budget, but city councilors approve total spending for the city and schools. So it will be up to school officials to decide how to make up the $87,000 change sought by councilors, by either cutting expenses or adding revenue, such as increased use of reserve funds, to the school budget. School administrators could not be reached for comment Thursday about how the school system might deal with the $87,000 reduction.

Bridgeo’s initially proposed budget would have required a tax increase, of 0.6%. But a series of changes recently proposed by Ralph St. Pierre, finance director and assistant city manager, after councilors advocated for tax increase, eliminated that increase. The result is the tax rate remaining at the current $20.97 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

That means the property taxes of the owner of an average single family home in Augusta assessed at $130,000, if deducting $20,000 in value for the state homestead exemption, would be $2,307 for the year.

No members of the public attended the meeting.

Recent budget changes also added funding in two areas — a $30,000 increase for cybersecurity, an expense proposed to be shared with the School Department; and a $12,200 increase for gasoline for the Public Works Department.

Bridgeo said the cybersecurity spending is proposed in direct response to a cyberattack that disabled the city’s computer network this year. It will pay for new firewall software, monitoring by a security firm and equipment recommended by both a consultant and the city’s information technology staff.

 

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