Thursday, March 6, 2014
By Gillian Graham email@example.com
BIDDEFORD – The Biddeford City Council will hold a public hearing Monday on the proposed $60.8 million city and school budget, but city leaders say they are still looking for ways to hold down the tax increase.
The public hearing at 7 p.m. at the Biddeford Middle School auditorium, is an opportunity for residents to share solutions or tell the council what city services they can't live without, said Mayor Alan Casavant. The fiscal year 2014 budget does not currently call for any major staff or services cuts, but also doesn't provide for needed capital improvements, he said.
"Somehow we have to strike a balance between our ability to pay and the services people want," Casavant said.
The proposed combined city and school budget represents an increase of more than 3 percent over the previous year. If approved, the budget would add $1.21 to the city's mill rate. That increase translates to an extra $242 on the tax bill of a $200,000 home, said finance director Curt Koehler.
The proposed city budget of nearly $26.3 million is up 5.62 percent over the current year. The proposed $33.2 million education budget is up 1.32 percent.
Casavant said the greatest challenge in crafting the budget was dealing with the loss of $900,000 in property taxes from Maine Energy Recovery Co., the trash incinerator that is currently being decommissioned. The city agreed last summer to buy the property from MERC parent company Casella for $6.65 million after the company announced it was closing the facility.
While the loss of the property tax was a challenge, Casavant said the loss was offset to some degree by the state's "sudden and severe" triggering mechanism, which directed to the city an extra $448,478 in education funds and $53,395 in revenue sharing because of the city's valuation depreciation.
The first $150,000 payment for the MERC property is due in fiscal year 2014, but that doesn't add to the tax increase because the payment is covered by tax increment financing funds and revenue generated by cellphone towers on the MERC smokestack, which will stay in place, Casavant said.
The proposed budget includes $383,000 to start a curbside single-stream recycling program in July. Casavant said the total cost of the recycling program for the owner of a $200,000 house is $28.80.
Councilor Melissa Bednarowski said city departments submitted lean budget proposals, but a tax hike is still unavoidable.
"Nobody wants an increase in their taxes, but with many years of a zero percent increase, this council is not in a position to not increase taxes," she said. "There are many areas of concern not being addressed, such as infrastructure, in order to keep the city operating at status quo with a minimal impact on the tax base."
City Councilor Richard Rhames said he is concerned that the proposed budget doesn't allow for needed projects such as road paving and fixing school buildings.
"Biddeford has not been so great with keeping up with routine maintenance on its building and infrastructure," he said. "I'm afraid we're looking at replicating that tendency with the budget process."
Biddeford voters last year rejected a bond to pay for infrastructure improvements, but Casavant said the city will try again because borrowing rates are favorable and there is no room in the budget for those types of improvements.
In addition to the public hearing, residents will have the chance to comment on the proposed city and school spending plans before the council's first readings of the budgets. The first reading of the school budget will be at 7 p.m. May 16; the first reading of the city budget is set for 7 p.m. May 20. Both meetings will be held in the middle school auditorium.
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