Adamant taxpayers already coping with the impacts of the coronavirus shouldn’t be hit with a property tax increase, Augusta city councilors have asked the school board to cut around $450,000 from its share of the total city and school budget.

School Board Chairman Ed Hastings and Superintendent James Anastasio said they understand the situation and they would look to make cuts to the school budget, which was drafted before the coronavirus became a global pandemic. The cuts, school officials said, would not have a major impact on services to students but would have to be approved by the school board.

“We’re aware of the city wanting to have no tax increase and certainly understand that and that the city has been making its own attempt to reduce expenditures as well,” said Anastasio during a Zoom meeting with city and some school officials Thursday night. “At this point it is the board’s budget, but the administrative team will make recommendations to the board that could take us to where the council wants us to go.”

City officials noted the city’s share of the proposed $67.5 million budget for next year already includes extensive cuts to try to avoid the need for a property tax increase. As currently proposed, the city side of the budget would require $198,000 less from taxpayers, but the school side would require $465,000 more.

City officials hope to eliminate that increase by cutting the $33.8 million school budget back to an amount that would not require more from taxpayers next year, a year they anticipate will continue to see an ongoing impact from the coronavirus on everyone’s finances.

“I don’t think anyone wants to burden the residents and taxpayers of Augusta in these circumstances with an increase in property taxes,” said City Manager William Bridgeo. “The goal on our part, and I think I have some sympathy from the school board chair and superintendent, was to not present to the voters and taxpayers of Augusta an increased property tax burden in a year when God knows what other difficulties many of them are coping with.”

Bridgeo, Mayor David Rollins and city councilors noted the city has already done its part to cut expenses, laying off some 32 workers, primarily from city operations shut down due to coronavirus-related restrictions, such as the Augusta Civic Center and Lithgow Public Library. The proposed budget also includes eight furlough days on which most city operations will be closed, and all city staff other than uniformed public safety workers will not work or be paid, saving about $50,000 each day.

“I’m very sensitive to furlough days and to the fact that 32 people lost their livelihoods on the cityside,” Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind said to school officials. “I hope that as you meet (to reconsider the school budget) that is hopefully on the forefront of your thoughts.”

Hastings said he thought the school board can cut the budget and work with the city’s request without having a major impact on services to students.

Anastasio noted the school budget was approved by the school board when the district expected to get a significant increase in state funding — an increase state officials have said the schools will likely still get. Local officials, however, are now skeptical about that since state revenues have plummeted with the rise of the coronavirus.

In a memo to the school board and distributed to councilors, Anastasio listed new positions added to the budget, positions he suggested would likely be a starting point for his recommendations to the board on what to cut from the budget. They include an additional second grade teacher at Farrington Elementary School as well as furniture and books for that teacher, two ed techs at Lincoln Elementary School, an additional elementary school dean of students, a middle school academic interventionist, and buildings and grounds projects.

Ward 4 school board member Kati McCormick asked by email during the virtual meeting how much could be saved by not filling the soon-to-be-vacant assistant superintendent’s position, but Anastasio declined to answer, saying that should be discussed by the school board as it reconsiders the budget.

Anastasio said that while people may think the district saved money with school buildings shut down during the pandemic, that’s not the case and spending this year is only about 1% less than last year. He said that is due, in part, to the district still paying its employees, as well as its regular expenses and contractual obligations.

The tax bill for the owner of the average home, assessed at $127,400 in Augusta, would be $2,231 with the budget as currently proposed, or $2,200, the same as this year, if the budget were cut by the proposed $465,000. Bridgeo noted residents who are eligible for the state Homestead Exemption program would pay $60 less in taxes next year, if there is no increase in the tax rate.

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