WATERVILLE — Stores with 10,000 square feet or more of retail or commercial space are officially authorized to issue single-use plastic bags with purchases, as the City Council on Tuesday voted 5-1 to suspend the city’s plastic bag ban until Jan. 1, 2021, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The vote was the second one needed to finalize the suspension. The council voted 5-1 Thursday to take a first vote to approve the suspension, with Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, dissenting, and Councilor Flavia Oliveira, D-Ward 2, absent. Francke, who on Thursday recommended the suspension last only until the coronavirus emergency is over, voted against the suspension Tuesday also.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the Waterville City Council agreed Tuesday to suspend the city’s ban on some plastic single-use bags until January. Portland Press Herald file photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The coronavirus pandemic already has had an effect on the preliminary proposed 2020-21 city budget, which looks a lot different than it did two weeks ago, City Manager Michael Roy told councilors Tuesday. The special meeting was held online and accessible to the public for viewing through the city’s website, waterville-me.gov.

Roy said that two weeks ago, the proposed municipal budget, not including schools, requested about $225,000 less in property taxes than last year. Expenses were up, but revenues were also up, he said.

“So we were $225,000 to the black and no use of surplus,” Roy said Tuesday.

In less than two weeks, that picture changed dramatically, especially in the category of state revenue sharing, according to Roy.

He said the total revenue piece is much smaller than it was two weeks ago, so the city could get a smaller share of it.

State revenue sharing comes from two main sources, income tax receipts and sales tax receipts, and both are expected to be hard hit because of people not working and thus, not paying income taxes, he said. And with people not buying things, there will be a reduction in sales tax revenue, according to Roy.

School officials have not finalized their budget, but are expected to do so Monday, he said.

The council in July last year approved a proposed $42.7 million municipal and school budget for 2019-20, resulting in a tax rate of $25.76 per $1,000 worth of valuation.

The budget proposal for 2020-21 is preliminary and the numbers are expected to change, according to Roy.

“This is still very much a work in progress,” he told the council.

Two new, full-time positions are being proposed in the 2020-21 municipal budget: a police dispatcher and a position that would be split between the Parks and Recreation and Public Works departments, Roy said.

Mayor Nick Isgro noted that the city increased fees to area communities that the police department dispatches for, and that increase in revenue will be more than what a new position will cost. Roy concurred.

“I think, Mayor, we’re going to be collecting three times what the actual salary will be,” he said.

Meanwhile, Isgro asked Roy to explain what he thinks will drive an expected reduction in excise taxes.

Roy said not as many people are buying new vehicles and while people pay excise each year for the vehicles they now own, that amount continues to decrease each year as those vehicles age.

“It’s kind of an accumulative thing,” he said.

Isgro thanked Roy for reaching out to all city departments to ask that, with expected revenue shortfalls, all extraordinary purchase proposals be put on hold.

The council Tuesday reviewed budget proposals for departments including assessing, finance, city clerk and administration, with Roy saying the assessing budget is calling for less than a 1% increase for 2020-21.

“Looks like a very clean budget to me,” Councilor Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 4, said.

The city clerk’s office also is seeing a small decrease, though City Clerk Patti Dubois is asking for polling equipment she typically asks for in election years, including chairs, voting booths and signs.

With the coronavirus situation, Thomas College is not available for city use in June, and Dubois said she is waiting to hear a directive from the Secretary of State on elections.

“Rules are changing by the day,” Isgro said.

Roy said the city’s finance department is proposing a budget that is 1.5% less than the 2019-20 budget. The administration budget proposal reflects a 2.75% increase. In response to a question from Francke, Roy said he had not factored in the cost of hiring a consultant for $6,400 to help with the search for a new city manager. Roy, who plans to retire at the end of the year, noted that the budget proposal was developed in February, prior to the council’s approving funds for the consultant.

Isgro asked councilors if they had heard any complaints about the city’s purple trash bag program, as he had seen a couple of people discussing it online. He said he explains to people that if the program were to stop, the city would lose $5,700 in income per week.

Councilor Meg Smith, D-Ward 3, said one constituent wants to see the program suspended because it requires people, during the coronavirus pandemic, to go out into the public to buy the bags.

Councilor Mike Morris, D-Ward 1, said if stopping the program were to be considered, Public Works Director Mark Turner and his team should be consulted.

Thomas said he did not “see, logistically, how we can get rid of them (bags) all together.” He added that the city does not want to hurt private haulers who are now picking up trash for many residents. The only other option, he said, is to drop the price of the purple bags.

Mayhew said three or four people reached out to him about the program and they understood, once he explained that it fills a need and if it were to stop, property taxes would be affected.

Francke said one thing councilors need to keep in mind is the unknown effect of trash on the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is one of those things we should start to think about if we’re truly interested in public health,” he said.

The council plans to hold a regular meeting Tuesday, April 6.

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