Lewiston school, city budgets move ahead

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LEWISTON — The school department’s fiscal 2017-18 budget is moving along despite a number of question marks. 

During City Council budget discussions Tuesday, councilors received an official look at the proposed $73.6 million school budget.

In his presentation, Superintendent of Schools Bill Webster reminded officials of the difficulty in crafting this year’s budget because of uncertainty in the state budget. 

But, he said, he’s hearing there’s a strong chance Lewiston will receive additional funding by the time the state budget is finalized in June. 

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The City Council is scheduled to vote on the municipal, school and Capital Improvement Plan budgets May 2, just days before the scheduled school budget validation referendum May 9. That meeting will also serve as the final public hearing on the fiscal 2017-18 budget. 

May 30 is the latest officials can adopt a budget, according to the charter.

The School Committee voted unanimously last week to send the budget to the council. Most of the roughly $5 million increase is to add staff positions to keep pace with growing enrollment, maintain summer programs, raises and higher costs for health benefits.

Webster told councilors that based on Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed two-year budget, Lewiston would receive $4.8 million more in state aid to education, a number that could rise depending on the Legislature’s final decision. 

“More than one source has suggested additional revenue in excess of $1 million,” he said in his memo to the council. 

Webster said that despite the challenges to craft the budget, “I don’t want our challenging budget to overshadow the accomplishments in our schools.”

He said that includes the high graduation rate, and the impending construction of a new elementary school. 

Webster gave the council two scenarios that could play out after the school budget validation referendum and the affect it would have on the local budget.

According to his memo, the state budget, when adopted, also sets the minimum required local property tax share that must be raised in order for communities to receive their full state subsidy.

If Lewiston receives additional state funding in June, the School Committee would first use the funds to reduce taxes to the minimum required local share, which could be as low as a $10.29 property tax rate. Any leftover funds are then used to cover emergency expenditures only.

If the district doesn’t receive additional funding, Webster said, the district would have to cut about $600,000 in expenditures. 

“We’re prepared to do that if we have to,” he told the council. 

Council President Kristen Cloutier said the district should take “full advantage” of the state subsidy, especially with the growing student enrollment. 

Since 2007, Lewiston has gained about 850 students. Total enrollment is nearly 5,600, up from 4,736 in 2007.

The City Council also received its budget recommendation from the Finance Committee on Tuesday. 

The starting point for budget deliberations put the proposed municipal budget at $45.2 million for the next fiscal year, an increase of $1.4 million from this fiscal year. 

Finance Committee Chairman Robert Reed reiterated the committee’s notes, including concerns for items included in the Lewiston Capital Improvement Plan. 

He told the council that each decision they make affects residents’ ability to afford to live in Lewiston. 

Reed also said discussions at the state level “will have significant impact” in Lewiston. 

“This will be a difficult budget year,” he said, adding that the school budget is even more difficult. 

There were no questions from councilors regarding the recommendations. 

arice@sunjournal.com

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