ELLSWORTH – There were plenty of questions but few answers when city councilors and school committee members talked about money and budgets Tuesday.
City Manager Tim King told the two panels that while the city’s valuation and property tax revenue have steadily increased in recent years, subsequent increases in county taxes and reductions in state aid have come along as well.
Looking ahead, King said further increases are projected in city valuation, along with increases in energy costs, city and school salaries and capital improvements to city-owned buildings.
King said those increases are likely to result in a property tax hike of “no less than 1 mill.” A mill is a measure of property tax equivalent to $1 per $1,000 of property valuation.
Both panels Tuesday night wrestled with keeping costs down, particularly in light of the fact that they expect to have to invest capital in the improvement of city schools. King said the council has noted that the repairs, which are to be identified by survey, will be costly.
“They know that it’s going to cost some serious money,” King said. “And when the time comes, we’ll find a way to pay for it.”
School committee members said they are preparing to renegotiate agreements with the teachers’ union. Those negotiations, some members said, are also likely to raise the amount needed to fund the school system.
“We have to give an appreciatively good raise to teachers or we’re not going to be able to attract teachers anymore,” said David Allen, one of the school committee members.
Superintendent Jack Turcotte said a 1 percent increase in the overall budget for teacher salaries creates a $60,000 jump in the overall school budget.
Turcotte also said that the formula used to distribute state aid to schools has been a “frustration point” for the school committee. At one point, Turcotte said, Maine was a model state for school funding, but that has changed because of wrangling surrounding the yearly state budget.
“Every year it’s been eroded,” Turcotte said to state Rep. Edward Povich, D-Ellsworth. And while the funding formula has been “tweaked,” Turcotte said, the state has continued to create mandates for schools that do not include funding.
Povich told the committee that the only certainty in the budget process is for each panel to make its decisions on what to spend money on. “One of the answers is to, whenever possible, hold your spending in line,” Povich said.
The two panels also addressed per pupil spending in Ellsworth.
Jonathan Van Pelt, a school committee member, said that Ellsworth should be doing more to fund its schools. “As a community, we don’t support our educational system to the extent of other communities in Hancock County,” Van Pelt said.
A number of councilors said the answer isn’t simply to fund the schools at a higher rate simply to raise the per pupil cost but to analyze how that money is distributed. Some said Ellsworth should be proud of providing a quality education at a lower price.
No formal actions were taken at Tuesday’s meeting. The groups are expected to meet again as they prepare to develop a budget for the next school year.