CAPE ELIZABETH—The Cape Elizabeth Town Council marked the unofficial end of budget season by voting 5-2 this week to pass the $26.3 million 2021 school budget, but not before councilors voiced their displeasure over the potential negative impact on the tax rate.

The proposed $26.3 million budget is a 4.7% increase over 2020. If voters approve it at the polls July 14, the total combined net school and municipal impact to the tax rate will be a 0.9% increase. That adds up to 18 cents, or a $45 increase for the owner of a $250,000 home.

During the June 15 budget discussion, Councilor Valerie Deveraux noted the municipal budget, which already passed council approval on May 27, came in at $6.8 million, which was a 2.4% decrease over the current spending plan, and came after town officials made some deep cuts. The school district, Deveraux said, appeared to do nothing to address its budget increase.

“It’s an understatement to say how disappointed I am,” she said.

School Superintendent Donna Wolfrom told the council in a previous meeting that the increases were due primarily to the need to put funding aside to prepare for re-opening schools in the fall. Even if the district decides on a remote-learning/in-school hybrid system, she said, the district will still potentially need to foot the bill for items such as thermometers for student screenings, masks for all students and staff, and additional bus runs to allow for students to ride while seated a safe distance apart from each other.

Councilor Penelope Jordan, the other nay vote, said she believed the requirements from state and federal health officials for re-opening schools amounted to an unfunded mandate, and said the town should stand up to the state and demand state and federal money to go along with the safety requirements.

“I cannot support a budget that absorbs COVID dollars,” she said.

Even councilors who did vote for the budget said they weren’t happy. Councilor Christopher Straw, who recently voted against adding a $65,000 line item to the municipal budget to replace the artificial turf at Hannaford Field, said such decisions didn’t take the bigger picture into account.

“It seems like people are cherry-picking the causes they like, instead of cutting costs across the board,” he said.

Councilor James Garvin said he felt he was in a position of being asked to vote on “blind faith” that the budget, if approved, would match what ultimately would be required, and that the unpredictability of the coronavirus was making it nearly impossible to plan ahead.

“For me, there’s a whole litany of things (to figure out),” he said.

Council Chair Valerie Adams shared Garvin’s concerns about uncertainty, but in the end supported the school’s proposed budget.

“I don’t think that the ultimate increase is unreasonable,” she said.

Sean Murphy 780-9094

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