AUGUSTA — City councilors have backed off on a demand for more cuts to the school budget after discovering a last-minute correction in calculations that will require the tax rate to still increase a few percentage points while also maintaining reserve funds at the level recommended by the city charter.

The new calculations for the proposed $79.7 million city budget have staved off more cuts to school spending that officials warned would impact educating students.

“I’m 100% on board with that plan,” At-Large Councilor Courtney Gary-Allen said after Thursday’s City Council meeting. “I think it sends a strong message to our friends on the school board that we support our schools and our teachers and our adult education and we want strong schools and strong children in those schools, as well as we want to find a balance between taxpayers and what they need.”

For the owner of an average-valued $129,400 house in Augusta, the budget as now proposed would mean a tax bill of $2,970, an increase of $134.

Earlier this month, city councilors, who have the final say on the combined city and school budget, agreed informally on a $79.7 million budget proposal that would increase property taxes by 4.7%. To get to that figure, from a previously proposed budget that would have required a larger tax increase, councilors directed City Manager Susan Robertson to find a way to reduce the proposed city budget’s impact on the tax rate by 1%, and directed the school board to also cut the schools’ impact on the tax rate by 1%. The amount needed to be cut to reduce the tax impact by 1% was between $329,000 and $360,000, officials said.

The school board met Wednesday but decided not to recommend any further cuts to the school budget, as they had been asked to do, ahead of Thursday‘s  city council meeting.


Martha Witham, school board chairwoman, told councilors they’d rather be able to use the funds they’d have to cut to make the school systems better, and help deal with an unexpected influx of students needing costly special education.

“Yeah, we can always cut the budget, but my personal goal is, when I hear we held the status quo, I’m not proud of that, that’s not what we want from our schools, to hold the status quo,” said Witham, a former school administrator in other Maine schools. “We could cut it but the goal is to have enough money in the budget so we can maintain some amount of fund balance that we could use to offset taxes, at the same time cutting it some, and being able to offer new programs. There’s always room to cut but at some point, when you’ve done your budget, you’ve done your budget.”

In the meantime, after councilors had directed the school board to make cuts to the budget, city officials discovered an error. It was pointed out by Ward 4 Councilor Eric Lind, and would impact how much money the city could use to help offset the need for new tax dollars from its fund balance account. That part of the budget is generally made up of funds unspent in previous years and maintained for use in case of emergencies.

Councilor Eric Lind of Ward 4 speaks Jan. 21 during an Augusta City Council goal-setting session at the Augusta Civic Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

The city charter recommends the city keep 8.33% of the current year’s budget in fund balance. Most years that allows the city to take money out of the fund balance to help pay for the next year’s proposed spending plan, lessening the impact on taxpayers.

Robertson, in calculating how much the city could use from fund balance in the proposed budget and still maintain the charter-recommended 8.33%, had erred and used the proposed budget total for the upcoming year to calculate that percentage, not the current year’s budget as the charter specifies.

After city councilors postponed their final vote on the budget last week in order to recalculate figures, Robertson said the city could take roughly $325,000  more out of fund balance and still keep fund balance within the 8.33% of the budget recommended by the charter.


That means the budget, expected to go to councilors for a vote next week Thursday, would remain roughly at the previously proposed $79.7 million. That would require the same 4.7% tax increase as a majority of councilors agreed to previously, maintain fund balance at the desired 8.33%, and no longer require a $329,000 to $360,000, or 1% of its impact on the tax rate, cut from the school budget.

The school budget would still require a much-smaller, $35,000 cut to allow the city to maintain its fund balance and keep the tax increase to 4.7%. Augusta schools Superintendent James Anastasio said he’ll likely recommend the school board take that amount of money out of the schools’ own fund balance account.

As first proposed, the budget was expected to raise taxes by 9.3%, but a series of changes reduced the projected tax increase.

The school portion of the budget must also be approved by voters in a citywide referendum as part of a June 13 election.

The city’s property tax rate also increased last year by 4.7%, which was the first hike in five years.

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