AUGUSTA — The proposed Augusta city and school budget, at $73.7 million, would increase property taxes by 8.1% and add eight firefighter-paramedic positions to help address concerns the fire department is short on staff to deal with an increasing number of rescue calls.

City Manager Susan Robertson released her proposed budget to city councilors Friday, which includes a roughly $4.3 million or 6.2% increase in spending. It would require an 8.1% increase in the property tax rate, from $20.94 to $22.64 for every $1,000 of taxable property valuation. For the owner of the average $128,000 home in Augusta, the new tax bill would be $2,898, an increase of $217.60.

Robertson said the increase is largely driven by increased fixed costs out of the city’s control, including projected increases in the cost of utilities including water, sewer and electricity, and a bump in spending on fuel for vehicles and to heat city and school buildings.

Fire department spending is up by 11.5% over the current year, in large part due to the proposed addition of eight new firefighter-paramedic positions to address the increased call volumes Fire Chief Dave Groder has said are leading to overworked firefighters and a critical staff shortage. The department would seek to hire four people in July and add four others in the second half of the fiscal year. The split approach would  limit the impact on the budget and also recognize that recruiting new rescue workers could be difficult due to the current labor market. The new positions are expected to cost $476,000 in salaries and $34,500 in new equipment and gear. The city has also applied for federal grant funding to add 12 new firefighter-paramedic positions. If the grant is awarded, it could fund four of the eight positions in the proposed budget.

“With the increase in EMS calls it was a priority for the council, and myself, to do something about that, so I put eight new firefighter-paramedic positions in the budget. That’s a significant increase, that’s the main change in the budget,” Robertson said Friday. She noted the city has not had an increase in the tax rate in five years.

She said costs the city has little control over, such as utilities, insurance and retiree benefits, and payments on borrowed funds, are increasing substantially, by $1.2 million altogether.

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Robertson said there wasn’t much development in the city over the last year to generate new tax revenues.

She said the impact of the budget on taxpayers was less than it could have been because the school board approved a budget, of $35.5 million, that is not expected to require any tax increase. The school budget is up by almost 6.5%. But officials propose to use $2.3 million of the schools’ fund balance, made up of money unspent in previous years, to offset the impact on taxpayers.

The impact on taxpayers of the city’s $36.2 million share of the budget also will be offset with the use of funds unspent in previous years, but Robertson said in order to comply with the city charter’s guidance recommending the city retain 8.33% of the total budget in fund balance, for use in emergencies, she proposes to take $1.2 million less than was used from that fund balance last year.

The budget does not include funding for an additional code enforcement officer, which city staff and some councilors have expressed interest in hiring to ease the workload of the city’s three current code officers and to deal with an increasing number of deficient properties in the city.

Robertson said she heard the concerns about the need for an additional code officer and put it in the budget proposal, then took it back out, multiple times as she drafted the budget but ultimately decided to not include it.

“I wanted to put the position in — our code officers are pretty tapped-out now, but I felt, with a tax increase already necessary because of fixed costs and the EMS positions, we just couldn’t afford to put it in there.”

Robertson said the budget is a “maintenance level” budget, meaning there are no significant staffing or service level changes proposed, other than the additional fire department positions.

The city’s share of Kennebec County taxes is still unknown, but Robertson used a placeholder projecting a 3.1% increase, at $1.9 million.

The budget next goes to city councilors for review, starting with a 6:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday to examine the school and Augusta Civic Center budgets. Councilors are expected to wrap up their full review in May. The school portion of the budget will go to voters for validation in a June 14 referendum.

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