FALMOUTH — A small group of residents is urging the town to cut expenses and flatline a 15-cent increase to the tax rate, saying the $13.8 million proposed budget burdens residents during a time of economic downturn.

“I believe our budget must remain neutral going forward. During the Great Recession the mill rate stayed flat, which was responsible and sensible,” resident Valentine Sheldon said at an April 27 public hearing.

Sheldon is leading a small group of residents that is pushing back against the spending plan touted by the town, slated for a vote by the council on Monday, May 11.

The proposed $13.8 million municipal budget includes a 1.09% increase over this year’s $13.5 million budget. If passed, the tax rate would increase 1.9%, to $17.05 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, including 3 cents from county tax. That would mean an additional $72 for a median-priced, $400,000 home, Finance Director Pete McHugh said.

“That (15-cent increase) is about $360,000. Three hundred thousand of it was deferral of vehicle replacements, police cruisers, public works dump truck and pick ups, park maintenance equipment,” McHugh said. “(Holding those off) would impact our maintenance costs significantly, so it was good to put those back in.”

Resident Marjorie Getz sent a letter to the council before the meeting that was signed by an additional 39 residents, some of whom also spoke at the meeting about budget concerns, including Sheldon. Falmouth has 9,545 registered voters, according to the town clerk’s office.

Those who signed the letter asked the town to hire only some of the 14 new hires being proposed for the Fire Department and phase in the rest over three years, but did not propose specifics.

They also proposed cutting a proposed hire at the library, as patronage will likely remain low during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sheldon also said increases in the mooring and trash bag fees will impact taxpayers, if implemented.

As proposed, mooring fees for residents would go from $60 to $100, while nonresidents will pay $300, also a $40 increase, resulting in roughly $215,000 in revenue.

A 33-gallon trash bag would go up from $2.08 to $2.95, while a 20-gallon bag would increase from $1.46 to $1.91.

The town rebuffed a claim by Lee Hantchett, a signatory on the letter, who said the Falmouth Police Department is overspending by 30-40% more per resident than the Windham Police.

Local police expend around $2.8 million, while Windham’s budget is about $4.1 million, a difference of approximately $1.36 million, according to a chart Mchugh sent residents.

“The claim has been refuted with these numbers. (The 2021) cost per resident for Falmouth is $228.30 (at 12,162 residents) and $231.96 for Windham (at 17,832 residents),” Mchugh said in an email to The Forecaster.

“The (Falmouth) police department also doesn’t have benefits in their line items,” McHugh explained at the hearing.

Residents also had issues with the school budget, saying the school’s revenue in the proposed budget relies on real estate valuations.

“The school board is relying on money they think might be available if, or when, our property values go up during the reassessment. To say the school doesn’t affect the mill rate is wrong; they need to be upfront about how they are counting on taxes going up,” said Marjorie Getz, another signatory.

The school’s $39.5 million budget includes a $789,447 increase in expenditure, but school officials say their budget has no impact on the tax rate.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the school budget was set for a $1.5 million increase. School Board Chairwoman Danielle Tracy said the increase was lowered by proposed new positions and not replacing teachers who are retiring. Cuts to proposed hires include a part-time music teacher ($17,000); two full-time ed techs for kindergarten through second grade ($74,000); additional behavioral teacher hours($42,500); and a special ed hire to help students with behavioral issues ($85,000).

“The significant percentage of our costs is our personnel, mostly people working directly with our students,” Superintendent Geoff Bruno said.

Employee salaries and benefits comprise 79% of the new budget, or $31 million, while non-personnel operations make up 9.5%, according to school officials.

New personnel requests make up $282,000 of the proposed budget or .71% and include a full-time ed-tech for non-English speaking students, at $37,000, and seven full time special ed techs for incoming kindergartners at $245,000.

Councilor Amy Kuhn asked why the school would add staff, despite a decline in enrollment this year, saying residents had emailed her with that concern.

Changes in enrollment each year aren’t enough to hire or fire teachers, and the school looks at “multiyear trends,” Finance Director Dan O’Shea said in reply.

According to school data, 2,087 students were enrolled this year, a drop from 2,127 in 2019. This year saw the lowest number of students since 2011, although school officials argue that a 10-year trend shows growth. Bruno also added declining enrollments are spread among a number of grades, so they can’t remove a teacher in order to help decrease spending.

Voting on the budget was postponed to May 11 from April 30 to give the council of finances in the coming months.

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