HALLOWELL — With a $227,085 increase to the city’s share of the proposed Regional School Unit 2 budget, Hallowell officials are considering spending cuts to lighten the tax burden on residents.

At Monday night’s Finance Committee meeting, Hallowell councilors discussed the impact the RSU 2 budget could have on the city. Among the ideas floated were to offset the 7% local share increase by delaying capital improvements, such as repaving roads or adding sidewalks.

Councilor-at-Large Maureen AuCoin, chairperson of the Finance Committee, said she expected the city to see revenue next year from condominium development on Water Street. But she said each time another $25,000 expenditure is added to the city’s budget, the property tax rate increases by one-tenth.

The city’s current property tax rate is $20 per $1,000 of assessed value. AuCoin said if the school budget were approved by voters, who are to decide June 8 whether the RSU 2 spending plan moves forward, Hallowell’s tax rate could increase to $22.

Councilor Diana Scully said she wished the RSU 2 board of directors had involved municipalities in its budget discussion, which would provide communities greater understanding of the spending plan.

“We don’t have the benefit of knowing why the budget is going up as much as it is,” she said. “We aren’t part of the deliberations, just like they wouldn’t understand our budget.

“I really hope in the future there may be another process, where early before the first draft, we can sit down and say, ‘Here are the needs,’ and we can see what the taxpayers have to say.”

Although councilors said they appreciated the quality of RSU 2 schools, they called for more transparency in the district’s processes and wished they knew exactly why the budget was increasing so much.

Councilor Berkeley Almand-Hunter said she talked with Chris Myers Asch, who represents Hallowell on the RSU 2 board of directors, and wanted to hear more from board members about the budgeting process. She also asked the board to get next year’s spending plan to the public. RSU 2 member municipalities also have said they do not have current budget numbers.

But Almand-Hunter said the school district should be given a pass this year.

“We are in the middle of a pandemic. We are in a rough year,” she said. “I think if we were to cut them some slack one year, it’s this one.”

Mayor George Lapointe agreed with Almand-Hunter’s sensitivity to the schools, but said the RSU 2 board has had all year to help communities understand the budgeting process.

Lapointe has been outspoken about the district’s budget at past RSU 2 Finance Committee meetings, and told the board the city might not be able to undertake capital projects because of anticipated spending on schools.

“They have had COVID funding, as well. Can you tell how much they got from it? Not easily,” he said. “I said for years going to budget meetings for RSU 2, they could have a discussion so we could understand it better, and I don’t think they have done a good job with that.”

Lapointe suggested a bond to help pay for big expenditures, saying Hallowell would be in “in the red” from the school budget, if voters approve it.

If the budget does not pass, it will be sent back to the RSU 2 board of directors for additional cuts.

Money from the American Rescue Plan might help the city, Lapointe said, but the councilors are considering those funds for expenditures, such as city Wi-Fi  and other areas impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

RSU 2 Superintendent Tonya Arnold had suggested member municipalities use coronavirus relief funds to offset local spending increases, but the towns and city have reportedly been told the federal money may not be used for that purpose.

Councilor Pete Spiegel said the city has about $230,000 in road maintenance that need be done.

“This is the big expense that will tug at where we are for the RSU budget,” he said.

Almand-Hunter and Councilor Michael Frett said they preferred sidewalk installation be a priority rather than fixing roads. Almand-Hunter said many families have come to her requesting the city install additional sidewalks to improve pedestrian safety.

Frett agreed, citing his own experience walking the city.

“I know roads are important, but sidewalks catch people’s attention better,” he said. “They can trip and slip” without sidewalks.

Lapointe suggested budgeting $100,000 to repair roads instead of bonding to pay for the work.

“Given what we heard about the school budget, if we are committed to a big number for roads, we are going to have to say the other items are important for consideration, like the sidewalks and other things,” Lapointe said. “Because, in the end, it has to be balanced. If we choose the roads, the sidewalks go.” If we choose the sidewalks, the roads go.”

Councilors are expected to resume their discussion on spending priorities when they meet next Monday.

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