All of the budget busting councilors in the Twin Cities did this year may take effect on July 1, but residents won't notice a difference until the fall.
In Auburn, every voter in the city will notice the change next November at the polls. The city will replace five familiar neighborhood polling places with one.
“We're looking for locations right now that have space and parking,” City Manager Glenn Aho said. “If we can, we'll find a place on the bus routes.”
People in both cities will notice big changes during the first snowstorm of the year. Snow plowing, which costs $1.2 million per year in Lewiston and $603,000 in Auburn, was cut in both cities' budgets.
In Auburn, the city will operate a skeleton crew overnight during heavy storms. A fleet of six will concentrate on plowing main arterial and collector roads overnight, from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., leaving rural roads and most neighborhood side streets until morning. That's a big cut, compared to the 20 plows Auburn has operated overnight for years.
“Once people get off the side roads, everything will be the same as ever,” Auburn Public Works Director Bob Belz said. “But early in the morning, they need to be careful. And if they are careful, they'll be OK.”
In Lewiston, the city has reduced staff size and cut the budget for private plowing services. That will mean snowier and icier streets for a longer time.
"We had four or five routes that were handled entirely by private contractors," Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett said. "We've reduced our budget for sand and salt, too. So, the bottom line is, people may not see black asphalt as soon after a major storm as they are used to."
It’s the reality for most communities in Maine this year. A down economy and cuts from the state made budgeting difficult for all municipalities. Most faced slim or no spending increases but drastically reduced revenues. To make their budgets balance, they had to choose cutting services or raising property taxes.
In Lewiston, councilors eliminated 22 positions, laying off 10 city employees, including the Director of Public Works, a fire battalion chief and a fire safety inspector.
Auburn councilors challenged their staff to cut $1 million from the proposed budget, then settled for a $400,000 reduction. Some of the service cuts — removing school-based police officers, mandating furlough days and closing offices early on Fridays — were too deep.
In the end, taxes will increase in both cites — but not enough to stave off service cuts.
"We're trying to do the best we can, but some people are not going to like it," Auburn's Aho said. For example, the city clerk's office will begin opening at 1 p.m. daily. The city's finance clerks will take over some of the clerk's responsibilities during the mornings. They'll register voters and issue garage sale permits in addition to registering cars and taking property tax payments.
"For a lot of people, the lines are the things they don't like," Aho said. "It doesn't matter how nice the city employee is, how much they smile or how polite they are, it's still poor customer service if they have to wait. But we're asking for their patience."
Barrett said he's worried that lines will be a problem in Lewiston. The third-floor planning staff has lost a receptionist, so other planning and code enforcement employees will have to take over some of her tasks, slowing them on their regular jobs.
"We've done what we can to limit those service impacts, but there may be a bit of that here," he said. "We worked hard to keep it from being a problem."
Both cities are concentrating on making their operations more efficient. Auburn is using a computerized route-drawing program to design the fastest snowplow routes possible. Both cities are counting on a new joint software program to make things run easier.
"In particular, our planning and code enforcement staff are already overburdened," Lewiston's Barrett said. "So we are looking to this software to make them more efficient and make it easier for them to keep up."
A citizen version of the application should debut this fall, letting residents take care of much of their city business, such as buying permits and paying taxes, without having to set foot in a city building.