Westbrook voter Helen Nichols, 96, casts her ballot Tuesday. Nichols said she has never missed an election since she has been able to vote and supports the school budgets. Chance Viles / American Journal

Westbrook residents voted to approve the $41.3 million school budget Tuesday, the day after the City Council said the combined school and city budget will result in a lower tax rate than anticipated.

Election Clerk Debby Kantor, right, watches as Maureen Bergeron casts her ballot Tuesday in Westbrook. Chance Viles / American Journal

The school budget, which voters passed 312-83, represents a $1.2 million increase, which Superintendent Peter Lancia said is mostly due to the need for additional staffing, including ELL teachers.

City councilors approved the $28.1 million municipal budget Monday. With the amount of additional state funding coming to the city now more clear, Mayor Mike Foley said, the property tax rate will go down another 3 cents, bringing it to $17.83 per $1,000 of assessed value.

School budget

Tuesday’s voter turnout was 2.9% of 15,068 voters, lower than City Clerk Angela Holme’s prediction of 4%.

Residents who spoke with the American Journal at the polls Tuesday were in favor of the budget.

“Our immigration population is growing and we need to meet those needs,” said voter Laura Nichols, an ELL teacher at Saccarappa School. “Our schools are doing great but we need to support them as the students are in a transition.”

The budget process at times was rocky, with the mayor and school committee at odds over an acceptable spending increase and the transparency of the committee’s budget process.

The committee’s initial budget request, before the city learned of the additional state and federal funding it would receive, would have resulted in a 22-cent tax rate increase.

“I understand fiscal responsibility but our schools are in need,” voter Brigitte Kearney said.

Increased costs in the new budget are for the addition of two elementary ESL teachers, an elementary special education teacher and a kindergarten teacher for Congin Elementary for a total of about $320,000, according to Lancia, and for pay raises for staff, which were put on hold last year to reduce the tax impact during the pandemic.

Payroll alone accounts for about $32.7 million of the proposed budget, or 78%.

Lancia said Wednesday he was “really pleased” with the budget validation.

“It was a strong positive vote. I am grateful,” he said. “Overall we had more participation this year than ever before with virtual meetings. It wasn’t uncommon to have 100 people viewing our meetings, so I think the support was in part because of that.”

City budget

The City Council approved the municipal budget 5-2, with Councilors Victor Chau and Elliot Storey voting against.

With the tax rate reduction lowered to $17.83 per thousand dollars of assessed value, the property tax bill for a median-priced Westbrook of $250,000 will be $4,457.50, $8.50 less than this year’s bill.

Council President Gary Rairdon, who previously voted against the combined city and school budget, voted in favor of it Monday.

“I wanted hard figures and to know what I’m voting on,” Rairdon said, referring to anticipated state and federal funding. “We have those figures this evening, and I will be supporting this. It’s hard to make a judgment you don’t have full facts on.”

Requested additions to the budget initially deferred will be paid for with federal COVID-19 relief funding, including a mental health liaison position for the police department. A police sergeant position and an assistant to the city clerk and mayor position will also be funded.

With voter turnout of less than 3% Tuesday, Westbrook City Clerk Angela Holmes said poll workers packed up underused polling stations throughout the day. Chance Viles / American Journal

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