FALMOUTH — Dee Conroy-Vella urged town councilors Wednesday night to support a proposed 10.8 percent increase in school spending next year as a means to promote everything from property values to local businesses.
Conroy-Vella spoke after school officials touted the fact that Forbes put Falmouth at the top of its 2011 list of towns with great schools and moderate housing costs.
Falmouth schools also are among Maine’s highest performing and most efficient, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine.
“It’s not just an investment in our children,” Conroy-Vella said of the school budget, “it’s an investment in our community.”
Conroy-Vella was one of a dozen townspeople who spoke at a public hearing at Falmouth Elementary School on a combined $40 million municipal and school budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
The council is scheduled to vote on the fiscal 2013 budgets on April 23 and hold a town referendum on the school budget on June 12. A majority of councilors indicated strong support for both budgets.
The $11 million municipal budget proposal calls for a 3 percent spending increase of nearly $319,000, but it would add nothing to the tax rate of $12.92 per $1,000 in property value.
The School Board’s $29 million school budget proposal is $2.8 million – 10.8 percent – more than the $26.2 million spending plan for the current 2011-12 school year, said Dan O’Shea, school finance director.
The school budget would add 50 cents to the tax rate. The annual tax bill on a $300,000 home would increase $150, from $3,876 to $4,026.
Nearly half of the projected school spending increase – $1.4 million – anticipates the first debt payment on the elementary school, which opened in September. The school district’s total debt payments will increase from $3 million this year to $4.4 million in 2012-13.
The Maine Department of Education is paying 85 percent of the cost of the new school, which is largely why Falmouth’s state education aid will increase from $6 million to $7.5 million.
Excluding the district’s long-term debt, school operating costs are expected to increase 5.7 percent next year, O’Shea said.
School officials attributed the spending increase to a $650,000 reduction in federal revenue and state Medicaid reimbursements; a 2.25 percent negotiated cost-of-living salary increase for teachers; and in increase of 50 students, pushing total district enrollment to 2,151.
Most speakers agreed with Conroy-Vella, including Russ Anderson, who lives on Oakmont Drive.
“We can’t be voting for a new school and then complaining about it later,” Anderson said. “(Education) isn’t our only priority, but it is a top priority.”
John Winslow, a third-generation Falmouth resident who lives on Gray Road, was the sole voice against the increase. Winslow said he’s concerned that Falmouth is attracting people who come for the schools and leave as soon as their children graduate.
“I keep on hearing (talk about) community,” Winslow said. “Falmouth has become a stepping stone. You’re driving the community people out. Where’s it going to stop?”
Following the public hearing, most councilors said they would approve the school budget. Chris Orestis promised “enthusiastic support,” while Fred Chase said he’d be happier with a tax rate increase closer to 25 cents.
School officials noted that Falmouth has one of the lowest property-tax rates in greater Portland, with Yarmouth topping the list at $20.28 per $1,000, and that some towns are considering similar increases in fiscal 2013.
The municipal budget increase is driven by employees’ wages, fuel prices, retirement benefits and professional fees, said Town Manager Nathan Poore. Wages and benefits for municipal workers will increase 2.2 percent, to nearly $5.3 million.
The municipal increase will be offset by modest spending reductions in other areas and by anticipated revenue increases from automobile excise taxes, cable franchise fees and property taxes.
It’s the fourth year in a row that the municipal budget will add nothing to the tax rate.
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: