BRUNSWICK — After millions of dollars worth of cuts to the municipal and school budgets, town officials nearly halved a proposed 11.5% tax increase to 6.34%, but expect that further and more difficult cuts are looming. 

The proposed $27.4 million town and $43.7 million school budgets (about $71 million combined) would raise taxes 6.34%, with just under 1% coming from the town, 5.18% from the schools and 0.2% from the county tax. Such an increase would bump the existing $19.72 tax rate to $20.97, which would mean a $4,194 tax bill for a home valued at $200,000. 

“In every way, the economic impact of the pandemic is as bad as any recession, perhaps worse,” Town Manager John Eldridge wrote in a letter to the council. 

The initial proposed budget, then a combined $74 million, already trimmed over $550,000 from what the town’s departments requested. Finance Director Julia Henze said Friday that the updated figures represent more than $1 million in further reductions. 

“The budget presented now reflects the new reality — significant reductions in municipal revenues,” Eldridge wrote. “Recognizing that many taxpayers are facing difficult times, the proposed tax rate increase related to municipal services is less than 1%.”

Last year’s $67.8 million town and school budget raised taxes an estimated 5%, which town councilor Kathy Wilson was concerned would leave residents with “sticker shock.” 

But councilors have known for some time that this budget season would be difficult. Payments on the new Kate Furbish Elementary School, which will open in the fall, begin this year. 

Salaries and benefits are the key drivers of the municipal budget, accounting for roughly $800,000, and though there are no new staff positions, it includes $100,000 for cultural broker Nsiona Nguizani. Nguizani was hired in August to help the dozens of African asylum seekers adjust to life in Brunswick. Hired after the budget was finalized, his salary was not included in last year’s spending. 

Eldridge said the budget also reflects a “substantial increase” in the cost of general assistance, the state-mandated program that aids persons in need. In July, Gov. Janet Mills relaxed restrictions on the program and allowed asylum seekers to qualify for assistance. The state reimburses 70% of town expenditures, but even with the reimbursement, Eldridge said, the net increase is still $165,000. 

Paving and road rehabilitation will increase $100,000, half the original recommendation, and bring the total paving budget to $1.2 million, which is still $600,000 to $800,000 short of the recommended funding level.

Eldridge also eliminated the landfill and train subsidies to save $175,000, and is recommending the town landfill recyclables for a year for an additional $75,000 in savings. 

“I am well aware that this was considered and rejected last year,” he wrote. “However, because we find ourselves facing much different economic circumstances, I feel compelled to recommend it.”

On top of increased costs, Henze said projected revenues are already down by more than $600,000.

The school budget also received substantial cuts. 

Kelly Wentworth, school business manager, said the proposed budget was cut by about $1.5 million after the original presentation included a 9.34% tax increase. 

Everyone realized that increase “is not palatable,” she said, “even before our lives all changed (due to the pandemic).” 

The budget now leverages a 5.16% increase, with the almost $2 million costs for the Kate Furbish school, making up the bulk of that. 

Other drivers include a $343,000 increase in staffing, supplies, equipment and contracted services for English for Speakers of Other Languages. With the arrival of the asylum seekers, the number of students in the program doubled, requiring the department serve “above and beyond what our base staffing was,” Wentworth said. 

Special education services are also slated to increase by more than $350,000, something Wentworth said continues to get removed from the budget “year after year.” 

Another driver is the new pre-kindergarten program, a pilot of which launched at Coffin School this year with 30 students. Initial pre-K costs, with staff, transportation and classroom supplies will cost $585,000, but will be reimbursed by the state the same year. The funds cover another 60 students. 

The budget does not include any potential savings related to COVID-19. 

There will be savings in substitute and fuel costs, Wentworth said, but some of those will be offset by increases with the change to remote learning. The school department is still working to figure out what those savings might look like. 

“Much has changed since we took a preliminary view of the budget in early March,” Eldridge said. “It is likely that we will need to be prepared to continue making adjustments as the budget progresses toward adoption, and perhaps beyond.”

The council is expected to continue budget discussions Thursday. 

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