The Westbrook School Department’s proposed 2021-2022 budget would mean a 4% increase in the tax rate, an increase that surprised and frustrated city officials, especially Mayor Mike Foley.

After being told to aim for no spending increases at all in light of economic hardships caused by the pandemic, the department’s $42.1 million plan, up about 3.35%, over this year’s budget, is unacceptable, Foley said.

The proposal is $1.3 million higher than this year’s $40.8 million budget.

“This is the largest increase I’ve seen,” Foley said in an interview. “Any tax increase happening is passed along to renters and homeowners. It results in a negative economic situation.”

Superintendent Peter Lancia said the bulk of the proposed increase is because of personnel costs, but Foley said the department has an “unsustainable spending pattern that continues year after year.”

If approved, the tax rate from the proposed $42,124,118 school budget would increase by 72 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, from $17.86 to $18.58. The owner of a median priced home in the city, $200,000, would pay an additional $144 next year for a total of $3,716.

“We have a lot of residents who are struggling to pay their taxes at the current rate. It is not time to consider an increase to the property tax rate,” City Administrator Jerre Bryant said.

Last year’s school budget was up just under 1%, but city funding was used to alleviate any tax increase it would have caused.

The increase is driven largely by personnel costs, Lancia said.

Existing employee costs and planned pay raises, still being negotiated, account for a $1.7 million increase that has been offset by reductions elsewhere in the budget, including the elimination of the director of operations position, which was cut earlier this month for a savings of $135,000.

“The biggest increase is due to people, but it’s increases that I think are well spent,” Lancia said. “We are a large organization, we have 2,500 students projected for next year.”

School Finance Chairperson Suzanne Salisbury said because school staff last year offered to hold off on raises, the committee felt it “wasn’t right” to ask for that again.

“We have about 450 staff positions, and when you are adding in subs, coaches, that’s over 700 people,” Salisbury said. “Our line item for salaries and benefits is big. There is an increase that goes along with having that much staff and salaries. If we just left no increases and just went with salaries alone we’d have to cut $1.7 million and that’d be devastating.”

Payroll accounts for $32,753,345 of the proposed budget.

Increased costs include the addition of two elementary ESL teachers, an elementary special ed teacher and a kindergarten teacher for Congin Elementary for a total of about $320,000, Lancia said.

Foley told the American Journal that the average Westbrook resident is financially hurting and tax rates should be maintained at no increase.

“Businesses are struggling to keep doors open, general assistance is at the highest level it’s ever been,” Foley said. “For the first time in history, people are coming in for assistance for mortgage payments.  That is happening here in our community.”

According to General Assistance Director Harrison Deah, the number of people seeking assistance has “more than doubled” since the onset of the pandemic.

“We have had several applicants inquire about help paying mortgages on their primary residence, and they all almost immediately withdrew their applications after understanding the process, which includes the city filing a lien on the property. Emergency housing/hotel assistance has had the biggest increase in demand,” Deah said.

The total emergency shelter expenditure in FY20 was less than $1,500, but that has risen to $17,000 in the past year.

City Council President Gary Rairdon said he was disappointed the school department budget increases weren’t communicated early enough in the process.

“I know the mayor set guidelines. We haven’t had any correspondence from the school side saying that’d be difficult to achieve, no communication saying they may not be able to hit the goal,” Rairdon said.

The school budget was scheduled for a vote by the School Committee Wednesday night,  after the American Journal deadline.

The City Council will review and vote on the school budget at a future meeting. If it rejects the budget, it will be up to the School Committee to cut an amount proposed by the city, but Rairdon said it is too early to tell how the council will vote.

Ultimately, voters will weigh in on the school budget at a referendum as well.

The city budget will be unveiled to the public April 26 during a combined meeting on the school and municipal budget.

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