Nathan Hintze shows the town council the photo of a nonverbal student who he said was negatively impacted by last year’s school budget. He asked the town council to approve this year’s school budget as it was presented to help better serve special education students and their needs. (Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record)

BRUNSWICK — Brunswick residents could be in for a nearly 5.3% tax bump if both the town and school budgets are adopted as drafted. 

The most recent proposed municipal budget includes a $25 million spending plan, a $1.6 million increase over last year, which would raise taxes by 1.63%. The Brunswick School Department’s $40 million budget would mean a 3.6% tax increase, but is already more than $5 million lower than what school officials originally wanted.

If both the school and the municipal budgets are approved taxes would increase by 5.28% to a mill rate of $19.93, which, for a $200,000 home would equate to a $3,986 tax bill.

Several speakers at the meeting called on the council to support the school budget, which some described as already being “bare-bones.”

Those who spoke against the budget said that, while they supported education and children’s needs, they were concerned for seniors and retirees living on a fixed income who may not be able to afford to live in Brunswick for much longer.

Councilor Kathy Wilson, who said at a previous meeting she would not support anything higher than a 3.5% total tax rate increase, said that even she would not be able to stay in town if she were not still working. 

“That the schools are bare bones just doesn’t jive with me,” she said. “I wish we could do it all but we can’t.”

The school budget, which accounts for 60% of the overall Brunswick budget, is being driven partly by enrollment numbers, which are expected to increase next year when Coffin School rolls out a pre-kindergarten pilot program for 30 students. Increased supports for special education students, instructional resources which have been put off for years, and services for the approximately 95 homeless students in the district, including transportation needs, were also identified as top priorities for next year.

The district also plans to hire a new assistant principal for Coffin School to help with the transition to the new Kate Furbish School in 2020, and to work with the additional 120 or so students that will be attending.

Resident Nathan Hintze brought a photo of a young boy to the podium with him. The boy was a nonverbal student, he said, who would never be able to speak up at one of the hearings for his own needs. Last year’s budget cuts had an impact on his education, not only impeding his ability to learn, but after a cut to transportation, he no longer had a ride to school, Hintze said.

“This little boy deserves what everybody else gets,” Hintze said, and asked the town council not to repeat history with a budget that he felt wouldn’t meet the needs of special education students.

Resident Hillary Shende said there are now more high needs students in Maine’s public schools than ever before and that the town should spend the money to help these kids now rather than paying for it later. “It’s easier to pay for a special ed tech than for incarceration later on,” she said, adding that “to cut now is penny wise but town foolish.”

The town’s $25.8 million spending proposal is driven largely by public safety staffing requests, including four firefighters, an inspector and one police officer.

The fire department has 32 career firefighters and is operating with the same staffing level for about 20 years, chief Ken Brillant told the council at an earlier budget meeting.

Last year they responded to 1,271 fire calls and 3,379 calls for emergency medical services. These calls have been steadily increasing over the years, he said, while their own numbers have not.

Responses have increased 66% in the last 10 years while the staffing has not changed since 2006.

Plus, more people are being transported to Maine Medical Center (although ambulance fees are their largest revenue source, bringing in over $1 million in 2017), EMS protocol changes require more people for longer periods of time and increased activity at Brunswick Landing means more calls, leaving them shorthanded, Brillant said.

The requested budget of $2.4 million, up from $2.1 million last year, would cover the four additional firefighters and an inspector. The inspector position would help handle fire prevention inspection, multi-unit inspection, new heating appliance installation and others.

The additional police officer would serve as a traffic safety officer, town manager John Eldridge said, since the department, while receiving requests for more traffic patrols, is not doing any more motor vehicle stops than they did 10 years ago.

Paving and other infrastructure repairs are also a priority, although the originally intended $750,000 increase in paving was cut down to $250,000 during a recent workshop.

The new property tax assistance program that the town approved in December costs another $70,000, but will help provide some tax relief for seniors over 70 years old who have lived in Brunswick for at least 10 years.

Recycling costs increased by well over $100,000 this year as Eldridge said the recycling market has collapsed. The cost to recycle is now $120 per ton vs. the $80 per ton to take waste to the landfill, and soon the town will have to decide the best way to continue the service.

Councilor Jane Millett said she felt the municipal budget was relatively conservative, but that everyone who spoke Thursday had made excellent points.

“Tough decisions are going to be made,” she said.

The budget process will continue Monday night, with budget adoption targeted for May 13.

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