On Wednesday, May 26th, the Town Council approved the Town and School Budget. While last year’s budget process dealt with significant uncertainty and required sacrifices as the community faced the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2022 budget represents restoration and hope. Last year, many tough decisions were made to put several initiatives on hold, place employees on temporary furloughs or reduced work schedules, and town revenues were difficult to predict. Looking forward into 2022, revenues look promising and strong as the economy recovers, positions that were lost or cut back are fully restored, and capital improvement projects will continue to enhance the quality of life and services in the Town.

Both the Town and the School honored the guidance the Town Council put forward this year. In January, the Council set a goal to keep the mil rate at or below 3%. Additionally, the finance committee issued guidance to the Town and School to focus on restoration and requested they come in as lean as possible knowing that many people in the community are still dealing with financial challenges due to the pandemic.  At first read of the budget, the Council restated our commitment to the goal after the Town Manager and Superintendent submitted their budget requests. While the budget requests initially came in high, it was important that the Town and the Schools were able to appropriately convey to the Council and community what was needed for recovery and restoration.

Throughout the budget process, town staff and the School Department looked for ways to streamline their requests after first read to help the Town reach a 3% mil rate. I’m happy to say, after all their hard work over the past couple of months and due to additional revenues from the state, the projected mil rate for 2022 is at 2.09%! In addition to the Council successfully achieving the goal of a mil rate of 3% or less, due to excess excise taxes in 2021, the Council has set up a new Capital Reserve Fund as directed under our fiscal policy to help pay for capital improvement projects in future years. Projects out of this fund will be reimbursed as projects go to bond in the future, so the Town can continue to leverage this new resource to help with future tax relief rather than requesting the funds from taxpayers.

I recognize even a 2% mil rate increase will be hard for those hurt most during the pandemic. The Town has been allotted approximately $2M from the federal government from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). While ARPA funds cannot be used by municipalities directly to provide tax relief, they can be used to recover lost revenues as a result of COVID, to help small businesses as they recover, and to help those most in need. The Council and the Finance Committee plan to take the time to evaluate all of the opportunities for these funds to provide the greatest impact to the community.  I felt it was prudent that we took the time to evaluate our choices, rather than make decisions in haste to reduce the mil rate for 2022 even further. Through smart decisions, these funds could help us balance the tax rate in future years while meeting unmet needs of the community as we continue to recover as a community.

This is a restorative budget, one that will help the Town and Schools recover in the next fiscal year.  The road to recovery is a long one and will not be fully addressed in one fiscal year, but with the investments made this year, the Town and Schools are well on their path.  Some decisions that were made that I look forward to include:

• Allowing the schools to keep class sizes small to keep our children healthy and help them address the learning loss and emotional challenges due to COVID

• Adaptive Traffic Lights to help reduce traffic congestion along Route One

• Staff investments in public safety to manage call volumes and bring back per diem firefighters

• Extending the lease at the House of Lights to bring new programming and better support our seniors

• Right sizing our Assessing department to bring talent in-house for conducting revaluations on a more predictable basis going forward.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Scarborough Town Council.

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