PARIS — Voters approved a budget of just over $4 million on Saturday, including about $514,000 for road improvements, prompting a debate on whether previous years of avoiding budget increases was a bad idea.
The debate came at the final article, when residents were asked to raise the property tax levy limit set by the state. The limit is a cap on the amount that municipalities can raise their property tax levies, but residents can vote to increase the limit. Residents voted to raise the levy limit by a 46-10 vote.
Had residents not approved raising the levy limit, they would have had to change the budget by removing about $400,000 in funding.
Town Manager Phil Tarr said the levy increased by about $428,000 this year over last. The statute that manages tax increases would have allowed an increase of about $30,000, Tarr said, given Paris' property valuation. Most of that increase was due to road improvements, Tarr said.
After little to no tax increases in recent years, the mill rate will increase by $1.38 to $15.28, Tarr said. The Budget Committee had recommended putting $400,000 toward road improvements, which would have led to a $1.04 increase to $14.94.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Robert Kirchherr and outgoing Selectman Jean Smart said this year's budget increase was a consequence of keeping a flat budget for the last few years.
Smart said years of frugality have hurt the town's infrastructure, and now they're forced to play catch-up. “The consequence of flat-lining our budget over many years results in our having to raise a lot of money to take care of what's happened,” Smart said.
Vic Hodgkins, chairman of the Budget Committee, defended the town's frugality in recent years. He said the town needed to balance its needs with the ability to pay for those services. “We simply cannot afford the town that we need to have,” Hodgkins said. “Hard decisions need to be made.”
Hodgkins said he was proud of the Budget Committee's work in keeping the mill rate low. This year, faced with an increase in capital improvement costs as well as payments to the county and the school district, the committee aimed for a $1 cap in the mill rate increase. Their final recommended budget was just four cents higher.
Another member of the Budget Committee, George “Buddy” Coffren Jr., defended the committee, saying it had been “vilified for not supporting the Police Department.” He pointed out that the committee recommended $505,934 for the Paris Police Department, the same amount Chief David Verrier had requested.
Another controversy rose when a motion was made to bundle several warrant articles together into a single vote. The first, consisting of articles seven through 15, collected items that are on the warrant every year, including authorizing the tax collector to accept prepayments, and to waive the automatic foreclosure of several lots including the A.C. Lawrence Leather Co. That bundled article passed easily.
Residents also voted to bundle most of the budget items, which was met with resistance and an attempt to rescind that vote. Kurtz said the higher budget this year is unsustainable. “It's like a drunk who's going on a binge,” Kurtz said of the town's spending. “If we keep spending, there's going to be a hangover in this town.”
Voters approved budget articles 16 through 26 as recommended by the Budget Committee and Board of Selectmen.
Residents also voted to appropriate about $1.5 million in general revenues and to transfer $150,000 from a reserve account earmarked for infrastructure improvement to offset the tax rate.
New selectmen Gerald Kilgore and Sam Elliot were sworn in, and Jean Smart, who Kilgore replaced on the board, was honored for her service to the town with a plaque and a bouquet. The Town Report was dedicated to Raymond Glover, a former chairman of the board with a long history of service to the town and the region.