The $68.5 million budget proposal up for a vote in Westbrook on Monday would carry the city’s largest tax rate increase in nine years.

A divided Westbrook City Council added to the bottom line in recent weeks, despite concerns from some members about the burden on taxpayers. The final version would be a 6 percent increase over the current year. If approved, the property tax rate would go from $18 per $1,000 of assessed value to $19.93. On a home assessed at $190,000, that increase amounts to roughly $200 annually.

The city hasn’t experienced that kind of growth on the tax rate since fiscal year 2010. That year, the tax rate went from $15.43 per $1,000 of assessed property value to $16.70 – an increase of $1.27. In the last decade, the city kept the tax rate flat in four years, even decreasing it by 20 cents in fiscal year 2014.

The initial budget proposal was slightly less at $68.1 million, but the City Council ultimately decided to increase funding for several local social services organizations that provide after-school programs. The councilors also funded one additional position in the Westbrook Police Department – a recovery liaison who works with people struggling with substance use disorder. The grant currently paying for that job is running out in June, so the City Council voted to add roughly $70,000 to maintain that employee’s salary and benefits.

City Council President Brendan Rielly said he made the motion to add that position into the regular budget because Westbrook experienced 95 overdoses in the last year, include seven deaths.

“In that environment, I couldn’t imagine going backward,” he said.

At first reading, the City Council voted 4-2 in favor of the budget. Rielly abstained because his law firm, Jensen Baird Gardner & Henry, also contracts with the city, and Councilors Gary Rairdon and John O’Hara voted against the budget.

O’Hara had voiced concerns about the tax rate increase during the budget review process, and at one point, he tried to cut nearly $350,000 from the school budget. That motion did not pass.

“A dollar a thousand to go up as proposed, to go up for the next budget cycle, is really pushing the envelope,” O’Hara said at a finance committee meeting April 23. “We are not a rich and affluent community. We are a working class community.”

The bulk of the increase comes from the school budget. The Westbrook School Department has proposed a spending plan of $38.6 million, a 6.5 percent increase over the current year. That number accounts for 88 cents of the tax rate increase.

Superintendent Peter Lancia said much of new spending was unavoidable. The fixed costs for employee raises and benefits added more than $900,000 alone. The first bond payment for a $27 million school renovation project is also due, and that accounts for 48 cents in the increase. The budget also funds new positions, including an additional social worker at Westbrook High School.

“We have our vision that’s pretty clear of what our schools need to be and what we want for our students,” Lancia said. “The budget is one way we make those visions a reality.”

The municipal portion of the budget represents about 14 cents of the tax rate increase. The $28.3 million is up nearly 6 percent over the current year, but the city’s revenues are also projected to spike by more than 11 percent.

“We’ve had a couple areas where we have significant increases, but we have also been able to match that up with offsetting revenues,” City Administrator Jerre Bryant said.

For example, the cost of expanded Metro bus service will be paid for with revenues from a tax increment financing, or TIF, district. A federal grant will pay for 75 percent of the cost of eight new firefighters.

The county tax demand for Westbrook next year will be $1.4 million. That number is 3.7 percent higher than the current year.

The City Council will meet at 7 p.m. Monday at Westbrook High School for a second reading and final vote on the budget. The school budget would then go to voters on June 12.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle

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