GARDINER — As they consider adding three firefighter-paramedics to the Fire Department, Gardiner officials are asking municipal employees to suggest ways to scale back proposed spending.

As the Gardiner City Council began debating the proposed $6.6 million spending plan Wednesday night, councilors were trying to strike a balance between planning for the effects of economic uncertainty and finding a way to provide more protection for city residents — without drawing down city reserves to pay for it.

Municipal officials across the state are grappling with financial challenges as the global coronavirus pandemic reaches its third month in the United States.

In response to that declaration, state and public health officials ordered nonessential businesses, government offices and school buildings closed in March to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus.

In the wake of those directives, thousands of Maine residents have lost income or jobs and state and local tax collections have cratered. While excise tax on vehicles is expected to rebound, taxes on sales and fuel are not.

While elected officials acknowledged it is impossible to have no increase in the property tax, they want to limit spending and use of one-time funds, such as the city’s undesignated fund balance, to lessen the impact on Gardiner taxpayers on the city portion of their tax bills. While it is not precisely a savings account, city officials have the option to use that money.

District 1 City Councilor Terry Berry asked Wednesday night how the budget would look with trimmed spending.

“In my mind, there’s a fine balance between providing the services the city of Gardiner needs and the services the city of Gardiner can afford,” Berry said.

Gardiner firefighter-paramedics don masks and gowns Thursday while responding to a medical emergency in Gardiner. Gardiner officials want to cut more than $200,000 from the proposed $6.6 million municipal budget, while figuring out how to add three firefighters.

Even as councilors were debating spending policy, Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson pressed them on his proposal to add staff to the Fire Department.

“The crux of it is we need to know the council’s pleasure,” Nelson said. “Are we going to go forth with it? If so, I have a path to go down. If not, it affects contract negotiations. We can’t sit in limbo on this. We need a decision on this one way or another.”

City officials are now in contract negotiations with Gardiner Fire Fighters IAFF Local 2303, and were in talks Wednesday during a scheduled executive session, before the start of the open portion of the meeting. Any increases would be part of the upcoming budget.

Nelson has proposed adding one firefighter-paramedic to each shift to help reduce the times when the city’s fire station is unattended because firefighters are responding to ambulance calls across eight communities.

He said the proposal has the support of the Gardiner Ambulance Service advisory board, made up of representatives of the communities Gardiner Ambulance serves. The fees paid by those communities help cover salaries paid to those who work for the Gardiner Fire Department.

In 2016 and 2019, city officials declined to authorize Nelson to apply for a SAFER grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help defray the initial cost of adding firefighters.

When Nelson presented his proposal earlier this year, the application period for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant was ending. When the deadline was extended, Nelson submitted a proposal that over three years would pay about $500,000 of the cost of the additional firefighters.

But there are two complicating factors:

• Grant money cannot be used for firefighters already on staff.

• City officials are not likely to get a decision on the application for four to six months.

“So, what if we don’t get the grant?” Nelson said. “Do I have an assurance you will support three additional staff members?”

After nearly two hours of discussion, the City Council agreed on a spending-reduction target of more than $200,000, without using additional money from the fund balance, which would result in a smaller tax increase.

“I don’t think there’s a citizen in America who is not expecting to have a tax increase in the next year,” District 4 City Councilor Marc Rines said.

Like other city councilors, Rines said he supported preserving the und balance for next year because of the uncertainty surrounding the long-term impact of the coronavirus, for which no vaccine currently exists.

Budget debate is expected to continue at the June 3 City Council meeting.

“I hope you hear we are supportive of adding the three positions,” Mayor Patricia Hart said. “We just have to figure out how to pay for it.”

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