LEWISTON – A city budget that would not increase property taxes is fine, but councilors Thursday said they’d like to see cuts go even deeper.

“The average family, when they have income reductions, they tighten their belts,” Councilor Larry Poulin said. “That’s all we’re asking the city to do – tighten our belts.”

Councilors began their annual review of the city’s spending plan Thursday night with a workshop. City Administrator Jim Bennett explained some of his proposed spending cuts in more depth, including a plan to restructure city departments and urge some senior staff to take an early retirement.

But councilors began the session with a discussion about how to handle a ballot issue designed to halve the city’s excise tax. Bennett said the city would need to cut $770,000 in fiscal 2010 and another $1.6 million the following year.

Councilors urged Bennett to assume voters will pass the measure and draw up a plan to make those cuts earlier. Bennett did, and it involves laying off 30 employees in November or December if the ballot issue passes. But he stopped short of making that plan public, saying he didn’t want to frighten employees unnecessarily or be accused of trying to frighten voters.

“I’m happy to talk to each of you privately about those cuts, but I don’t feel it would be fair to make it public,” Bennett said.

Poulin said councilors may want to consider making those cuts sooner, saving the money at the beginning of the budget.

“If we lay off those people six months earlier, we should be able to layoff fewer,” Poulin said. “It’s a question of laying off 15 now or six months later. I’d like to preserve those other jobs for as long as we can.”

Councilor Robert Reed agreed.

“People are fed up with taxes, and they are venting,” Reed said. “We need to assume that money is gone, that the cuts will pass and those jobs will have to be cut.”

Bennett said making those cuts might put an end to discussions with the city’s labor unions. Part of his budget plan calls for getting the unions to delay raises until February 2010, for a $360,000 savings.

“But they’re not going to agree to anything if they are going to be laid off,” Bennett said. “So that means we need to figure that money back into the budget.”

Councilors Denis Theriault said there would be plenty of time to talk about layoffs.

“But there might be other savings in the budget we can get at without laying anybody off,” he said. “I’m ready to go line by line over this budget to see what we can find.”

Bennett’s proposed budget starts with a $659,540 spending increase compared to this year’s budget. That’s compounded by lower non-property tax revenues – less money from building permits, car registrations and poorer returns on city investments, as well as cuts in state aid to the city. Combined, the budget is in a $1.8 million hole.

Bennett already built some budget-trimming ideas into his budget – doing away with spring cleanup, consolidating 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 property tax exemption for Lewiston’s senior citizens.

Bennett also elaborated on 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 would also transfer money from other accounts – money set aside for public access programming and recreation department surpluses, for example.

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 through a surplus account until they retire. That gives the city the income reduction in the general fund earlier in the year.

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