WATERVILLE — Should the city donate money toward community service groups?

That controversial question is prompting city councilors to debate other key budget priorities — whether to fund a new economic development position at the Central Maine Growth Council, or cut the tax rate — as they examine tens of thousands of dollars in municipal funding.

The debate started Tuesday night as the council considered funding the Alfond Youth & Community Center with $10,000 each year for three years; $15,000 for Kennebec Valley Community Action program; and $43,500 for the growth council. Councilors also discussed another $100,000 for a three-year period to hire a person who would be dedicated to economic development in Waterville.

The city had asked Ken Walsh, chief executive officer of the Alfond Center, to speak about the center, which serves more than 5,000 children, many of whom are disadvantaged, as well as adults. The center received funding from the city for many years but the city stopped funding it several years ago during lean years.

“The city has not been a great community partner over the last six or seven years or so,” said Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7. “I think it’s time for the city to step up to be a financial partner with these organizations.”

Councilor Rick Foss, R-Ward 5, said he supports the youth center, but he was not ready to approve the request. “I need to see all the final numbers before I approve this resolution tonight,” he said.

Walsh said he appreciated Foss’ honesty.

Thomas said councilors hoped for a funding commitment in the proposed municipal budget as early as possible so the organizations could start making plans. The funding would come out of tax increment financing revenues which are already in an account already and not committed to anything else, Thomas said. He added that funding the organizations would not increase taxes.

“Ken’s organization is an amazing asset in this community,” he said. “They’re an organization with a proven track record. It’s something that we should be supporting.”

Foss, however, made a motion to postpone the request and Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, seconded his motion, which passed, 5-2. Thomas and Councilor Mike Morris, D-Ward 1, were the only dissenters. Councilor Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, asked what the funds would be used for and Walsh said it can be directed to Waterville families in the licensed child care program where children are fed and receive academic enhancements. Francke said delaying a vote would give the council time to glean more information.

But Thomas and Mayor Jay Coelho, who had approached Walsh about resuming finding for the Alfond Center, said the budget contains $100,000 for funding such organizations.

Councilor Rebecca Green, D-Ward 4, said there should be an opportunity for other organizations to apply for funding and she wondered why the council was earmarking funding for only certain entities. Coelho said other requests also would be considered in the budget process. Francke called for postponing the Growth Council funding request.

“I think the Growth Council is a nice organization,” Francke said. “If Waterville is really serious about economic development, we should do things ourselves rather than farm it out to another organization that we have no control over.”

The council voted 4-3 to postpone the request, with Thomas, Morris and Councilor Flavia Oliveira, D-Ward 2, dissenting. The council also postponed the KVCAP funding request, 4-2, with Oliveira abstaining as she is a member of the KVCAP board of directors. Thomas and Morris voted against tabling.

Contacted Wednesday, Garvan Donegan, director of planning and economic development for the Growth Council who attended Tuesday’s council meeting but did not speak, said he was not bothered by the fact that the issue was postponed as he understands how dynamic municipal budget processes are and the issue will be discussed again.

Donegan said city leadership had approached the Growth Council about the city’s positive influx of revenue and the city’s interest in possibly investing further in the Growth Council and he was happy to have that conversation. He said the silver lining is that despite some of the hardships and challenges that the coronavirus pandemic has presented, the city has good financial footing right now.

Meanwhile, Francke said that he heard from several constituents that the proposed assistant city manager position in the budget doesn’t seem necessary in light of the fact that the city recently hired a new city manager.

The proposed $46.6 million municipal and school budget for fiscal year 2022 is $2.2 million more than the current budget, but with all the TIF and other revenues expected, the current $25.76 tax rate per $1,000 worth of valuation is not expected to change.

Francke said a $2 million increase appears somewhat excessive. He said revenue amounts are not yet known and questioned the proposal to add seven new employees. He said he hopes councilors can find a way to reduce the budget amount so the tax rate may be decreased. He also pushed for the city to have a revaluation.

“I think we’ve got some more work to do on the budget, and I think we should not put off a revaluation.” he said.

But Coelho said that for years the city has cut budgets, the city ambulances will generate revenues to fund proposed additional fire department staff, revenues will come from TIFs and there’s no plan for a revaluation now. If the city had one, “everyone would be hammered,” Coelho said. The proposal would fund transportation and other needs the city has put off for a long time, according to Coelho.

The proposed budget is “an amazing budget that puts us into the future,” Coelho said in an emailed statement after Tuesday’s meeting. “Everyone wants great schools, economic development until it’s time to write the check. This budget has zero increase and it was delivered early and with lots of hard work. Change is scary, but you can’t cut the budget without hurting revenue. This is a win for our city while everyone else is raising taxes around us. We are investing in our future in our children’s future and doing so without an increase.”

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