WINTHROP — With 58 people tuning in to the Zoom meeting Monday night, the Town Council narrowly approved Winthrop’s 2020-21 municipal spending plan.

More than an hour of public comments and discussion saw residents and councilors debate the merits of a forward-looking spending plan versus one that proposed to keep spending flat amid economic uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ultimately, councilors approved a budget that includes a spending increase.

The municipal budget includes proposed spending of $8,827,881, an increase of $200,158 — or 2.32% — to the current $8,627,723.

Anticipated revenues are $3,517,280, an increase of $139,929 — or 4.14% — to the current $3,377,351. The amount to be raised by taxes is $5,310,601, an increase of $60,229 — or 1.15% — to the current $5,250,372.

For the school budget, total proposed spending that includes adult education and the school nutrition plan is $12,291,895, an increase of $183,736 — or 1.52% — to the current $12,108,159.

Anticipated revenues for the 2020-21 fiscal year are $5,238,188, an increase of 52,375 — or 1% — to the current year’s $5,185,813. The amount to be raised by taxes is $7,053,706, an increase of $131,360 — or 1.9% — to the current year’s $6,922,346.

The projected property tax rate — including municipal, school and Kennebec County taxes — for the 2020-21 fiscal year is $20.73 per $1,000 of assessed value, an increase of $0.48, or 2.37%, to the current $20.25. For a home assessed at $150,000, the tax bill is projected to be $3,109.50, an increase of $72 from the current $3,037.50.

Sarah Fuller, chairperson of the Town Council, said many members of the public had reached out to councilors asking them to keep taxes as low as possible. She said the council tried to balance the municipality’s needs in planning for its future with the current crisis.

When making decisions on the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 and runs through June 30, 2021, Fuller cautioned against short-term thinking.

The day after the hearing, she explained it was important for Winthrop to continue to be forward-thinking.

“We are definitely aware there are a number of people going through difficult situations right now, and there is a lot of uncertainty,” Fuller said Tuesday. “It’s our responsibility to manage the town’s resources and maintain services. Knowing what we know, having been through significant budget crises in the last three or four years, what we’ve had to put off while still deferring maintenance.”

She said when maintenance or projects are deferred, they lead to higher costs down the road.

“Our thinking was twofold: Meet our contractual obligations and prevent surprise and higher costs in the coming year and following year, so we have a more stable tax rate,” Fuller said of putting forth a budget with increased spending.

“Being as consistent as possible — and keeping that consistency — enables us to adapt more ably than we otherwise would. We also didn’t think it was prudent to dip into our undesignated funds, which is finally stable, in case there is an emergency we need to use those for.”

During the public hearing Monday, resident Ron Dyer said he was “shocked” to see the town had proposed a tax increase.

“All I ask is respectfully that you send the budgets back to the school board and town manager and ask for a flat budget,” he said. “If this is such a small increase, this small increase should be able to (be) absorbed somewhere else.”

Resident Barbara Coriell said it was “very unclear” why the town needed to increase its spending.

“At a time like this, when everyone is concerned about their financial picture, Winthrop should have an explanation about why this is necessary other than we just don’t want to fall behind,” she said. “That isn’t good enough.”

Resident Kris Rowell also “urged the council to send the budget back for further tightening.”

“A flat budget this year is essential to many families in town,” Rowell said. “Please take this concern to heart.”

Councilor Linda Caprara, vice chairperson of the council and chairperson of the finance committee, voiced her opposition to the budget as proposed and made a motion to change the spending plan to “expend what we expended last year.”

That was seconded by Councilor Barbara Alexander, who said not only would she like to see proposed spending reduced, but also projected revenues adjusted to better reflect the economic realities brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The revenues are totally unrealistic,” she said. “I don’t want bills to go out with a budget you know you cannot meet.”

Councilor Priscilla Jenkins said the budget is merely a plan and that “there are always unknowns.”

The motion failed 4-3, with Fuller, Jenkins and Councilors Scott Eldridge and Andy Wess opposing it, and Caprara, Alexander and Councilor Rita Moran in favor.

The same split held for adoption of the municipal budget, with Fuller, Jenkins, Eldridge and Wess voting in favor of it, while Caprara, Alexander and Moran voted against the spending plan.

The council then voted to waive the second reading, although Alexander argued against that, saying the town would have better information if it waited a month. But Fuller, Jenkins, Eldridge and Wess voted to waive it and adopt the budget, while Caprara, Alexander and Moran were opposed.

The school budget vote was not as close, with Caprara the sole dissenting vote on adopting the budget and waiving the second reading on that.

Residents will have an opportunity to vote on the school budget July 14.

On Tuesday, Town Manager Jeff Kobrock said that “flat funding” the budget was not really an option — not without making cuts to what the town offers its residents.

“We’re at the place where reduction of this kind or size would, in face, result in noticeable service reductions,” Kobrock said. “No one (at the public hearing) was suggesting we reduce services.

“We’re really in a place where we fund the core services for the community — and nothing else. If you want to have significant reductions in spending, the result is going to be a significant reduction in services.”

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