LEWISTON – Rick Cailler, president of the firefighters’ union, doesn’t want history to repeat itself.

In 1992, he recalled, local firefighters agreed to forgo contracted raises to help balance the budget.

“We agreed to help preserve jobs, and then the city went ahead and laid off seven firefighters,” he said. “They went ahead and took a truck out of service, anyway. So all I’m saying now, we want to proceed very cautiously.”

City efforts to keep the budget flat and property taxes from rising could hinge on the city’s labor unions. City Administrator Jim Bennett proposed a handful of budget cuts and some belt-tightening when he released his budget to councilors Tuesday night. Those cuts should be enough to offset increases in spending.

But the city also faces cuts in revenue. To keep those cuts from showing up in property tax bills, Bennett is asking the city’s employee labor unions to put off their scheduled raises until February 2010. That would save the city at least $360,000, enough to keep property taxes from rising, he said.

“We need some clarification, some time to sit down with (Bennett) and ask him some questions,” said Cailler, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 785 and a lieutenant in the department.

“By no means are we saying, ‘No, we won’t work with the city,'” Cailler said. “We recognize that everyone is hurting. But we don’t want our members to be hurt twice. We’re all suffering the same tough economy as everyone else, so we need to protect our members.”

Tom Murphy, president of the Maine Association of Police patrol officer division in Lewiston, said he hopes to meet with Bennett and leaders from the city’s other six unions next week.

“I’d like a chance to see where they’re going and what our options will be,” Murphy said. “Then, when we have a better idea, we’ll take it back to our members. Ultimately, it’s up to them.”

The city has six unions: the firefighters union; the patrol division of the police association; the Maine Association of Police Supervisors division; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the city’s public works employees; and two divisions of the Maine State Employees Association. One represents the city’s clerical workers, and the other represents technical staff.

Layoffs were an option in the budget, and Bennett said he worked hard to get the budget to balance without doing it.

Budget plan

City Councilor Tom Peters says it’s a good plan.

“It’s not an easy time, and everyone is being asked to sacrifice a little,” Peters said. “The unions are being told to hold off the wage issue, but everyone else will be giving a little, too. But if everybody gives a little, we can avoid some big losses.”

Bennett’s proposed budget starts with a $659,540 spending increase compared to the current budget compounded by lower nonproperty tax revenues – less money from building permits, car registrations and poorer returns on city investments, as well as cuts in state government money to the city.

Bennett already built some budget-trimming ideas into his budget – doing away with spring cleanup, consolidating all of the city’s polling places, eliminating four vacant positions, selling off $250,000 worth of city property. He also does away with an idea to create a city-only property tax exemption for Lewiston’s senior citizens.

“It’s just not the time, because we’d have to raise taxes for everyone else to give our seniors that break,” Bennett told councilors. “As much as we’d like to see it happen, I don’t think this is the right year to do it.”

Bennett also outlined another $252,500 in cuts and fund transfers, including eliminating the city’s parking ticket amnesty policy, cutting travel and training spending, funding for the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport and sharing some services with other towns. He’ll expand on each of those ideas during the next few weeks of budget discussions.

A plan to reduce the number of departments and department heads from 14 to seven would save another $450,000. Under that plan, some department heads planning to retire before July 2010 would have their salaries paid with a surplus account until they retire. That gives the city the income reduction in the general fund earlier in the year.

Together, Bennett’s proposed spending cuts and reorganization negate the proposed $659,540 spending increase. But getting the city’s unions to delay raises for a year solves the revenue shortfall. That would effectively keep the budget level this year and get rid of any property tax increase.

“In my eyes, this is a zero-increase budget,” Bennett said. “It doesn’t raise taxes, even with everything else pushing us to. It does what the people want, and I think it’s very fair.”

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