Town spending concerns Edgecomb residents

Combined town and school budget may reach $6 million, over 20% assessment increase
Wed, 03/27/2024 - 8:45am

    Budget Committee Chairman Jack Brennan told residents March 20, “Edgecomb is a small town, but it’s no longer a small town with a small budget.” Brennan made his remarks during a budget informational session where selectmen and school committee members explained their Fiscal Year 25 budget proposals. 

    The preliminary draft is a $6.012 million combined town and school budget. Both school and town budgets reflect double-digit spending increases and 20-plus percentage tax assessment increases. The proposed school budget is $3,098,672 which represents an 11.8% spending increase and 21.6% tax assessment increase. School Committee Chairman Heather Sinclair reported the unassigned fund balance grew in past years due to an influx of tuition revenue and COVID-19 era ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds. “We don’t have those funds anymore. We used them to offset taxes over the past seven years,” she said. 

    Last year, the committee used $150,000 from the fund, but none this year. The town is also receiving $58,796 or 11.8% less in state subsidies. Tuition revenue remains constant at $236,000.

    In explaining the school budget, Sinclair described higher special education costs, a new literacy program and negotiated teacher pay and benefits as the major drivers in the spending increase. Despite all the recent challenges, Sinclair doesn’t foresee continued difficulties which plagued the school in recent years.

    “If we look back five years, the assessment increase is 5%. That is well below cost-of-living. So, the last two years were a significant and extreme situation,” she said. “The year before that (2023), we dumped $450,000 in ESSER and unassigned funds to reduce town costs. That is why we saw a 20% assessment increase last year despite a 2% spending increase.”

    Residents didn’t believe the cost of anything would lessen in the near future and they feared continued higher spending and taxes. Selectman Lynn Norgang supported residents’ concerns about spending. “I understand the pitch of their concerns. This is two years in a row of almost a million dollars in new spending,” she said. “That is not sustainable, and we are looking to you (committee) as experts in finding ways to figure out the expenses.”

    Dr. Kathryn Rohr is Edgecomb’s medical officer. She doesn’t see a return to lower spending in the near future. She believes 20% tax increases are “unsustainable,” leading to residents taxed out of their homes. “The vast majority of people live on fixed incomes. This is unsustainable, and pretty soon people will be squeezed out of their homes. Teachers receive raises which won’t outpace taxes and pretty soon they won’t be able to live here,” she said. “It will become so bad you won’t have a school or fire department.”

    Brennan believed without a long-range plan, it may lead to a decision nobody wants. “The trend in Maine is closing small schools. I don’t want that to happen on my watch. So, things need to change,” he said. 

    Public safety is one municipal cost center with a proposed lower budget. Even with a proposed 23% ambulance service contract increase, overall public safety spending is down 3.11%. Selectmen entered into a three-year contract calling for a $16,000 fee in the first year followed by $6,000 increases in the remaining years. The public safety budget is down due to making the final fire truck payment last year. Proposed fire department spending has no increase at $120,508, but firefighters are proposing a new expense.

    Roy Potter is the current chief and believes the position needs someone full-time. He told residents he works a full-time job over 40 hours per week which leaves little time left as a volunteer chief. “Ninety percent of the time we don’t have coverage during the day. We are missing calls, and I work a full-time job. It’s just not working,” Potter said. 

    He added new Bureau of Labor standards also made the position more demanding and needed more attention. The fire department proposed a full-time chief at a $62,000 salary with no benefits. The department also proposed to reduce firefighter pay from $20 per hour to $18 per hour to reduce overall costs.

    But Brennan didn’t believe taxpayers could afford a full-time chief in this budget. He recommended focusing on hiring more first responders in lieu of a full-time chief. “Now is not the time, nor is this the budget for a full-time chief,” Brennan said. 

    Selectmen didn’t announce whether they would place a separate warrant article seeking creation of a full-time fire chief position. 

    On March 25, selectmen met to work on the May town meeting warrant. The board is still finalizing spending requests and warrant language. The preliminary draft includes $180,350 for general government. Last year, residents approved $90,000. The increase would pay for a property revaluation over a two-year period. Selectmen expect the project to begin next year and end in 2026.