Councilors continue budget review

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LEWISTON — Decisions about the city’s 2010-11 budget and questions about tax rate increases and staff layoffs will wait at least another week, councilors said Tuesday.

Councilors hosted a public hearing on the proposed budget Tuesday. It calls for $43.6 million in spending, a slight decrease compared to the current budget. But even with the cuts, the proposed budget would increase property taxes by about $150 on a $150,000 home due to cuts in state revenues.

City Administrator Ed Barrett said he had spoken with representatives from all of the city’s employee labor unions and he briefed councilors on what the unions said in an executive session before Tuesday’s regular meeting.

Councilors had asked the unions to forgo some raises as part of the budget, but Barrett would not say publicly how the unions had responded. The council’s first action after the executive session was to table an order authorizing Barrett to begin laying off employees. Councilors are scheduled to review the budget at a special workshop Thursday. Barrett said he expects decisions about staff layoffs at the May 11 meeting.

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Councilors have been reviewing a list of proposed cuts that could reduce a potential property tax rate increase to 25 cents per $1,000 of property value. Cuts range from neighborhood polling places — the city would have a single polling place next year, possibly at Lewiston High School — reduce snow plowing, take one firetruck out of service, eliminate four police officer positions and cancel funding for special events, including the July 4 Liberty Festival.

But the biggest savings would come from eliminating 20 staff positions in departments across the city. That would trim $748,000 from the budget by eliminating salaries and benefits.

Pauline Gudas, of 6 Raymond Ave., argued against the cuts, noting that her taxes had gone up a total of $431 in the 17 years she’s owned her home — an average of $25 per year. That’s a pretty good deal, compared to inflation, she said.

“The city has never had the ability to buy filet mignon — we’re more at the ground beef level,” she said. “But this budget cuts below ground beef. It malnourishes the city. It bothers me to see these cuts.”

Roland Girardi, of 36 Chadbourne Road, disagreed.

“You seem to have a hard time making a tough decision,” Girardi said. “Well, times are hard now and everyone has to bite the bullet. Now is as good a time as any to downsize, with the economy what it is, and you should start right at the top. You have to give us a zero percent tax increase.”

Councilors also heard a budget recommendation from the city ‘s Finance Committee, urging cost-cutting measures and organizational realignment. It also noted that a $1 per $1,000 of value in the property tax rate would mean $500,000 in new taxes on local businesses.

That was an important point for Councilor Larry Poulin.

“We often hear about the budget’s impact on residents and taxpayers, but you don’t hear that much about the burden on businesses,” he said. “An increase of $500,000 is a lot for businesses that are already struggling. So we have to consider what they would do with that burden, and the only way they could react would be to lay people off themselves or go out of business.”

staylor@sunjournal.com

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