In the weeks leading up to last week’s Auburn school budget vote, residents expressed very strong opinions about how their tax money is being spent.

Some thought their taxes were high because of school rather than city spending. Some thought Auburn is top-heavy with administrators. Others thought the Auburn schools spend way more than other cities on special education.

But we wondered whether those strong opinions were grounded in fact. So we decided to examine the numbers from a resident’s point of view and compare them to other cities.

As a common yardstick, we chose to divide various costs by the number of people in the community. There are many other ways to draw comparisons, but this is the one we chose.

Three things surprised us: A greater percentage of tax revenue in Lewiston and Auburn goes toward city services than toward schools, considerably greater than other Maine cities.

Second, Lewiston and Auburn residents pay more for debt service than some similar communities.

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Finally, we were surprised that other spending categories were very similar to other cities.

But we invite you to examine the numbers and draw your own conclusions.

— Rex Rhoades, Executive Editor

Lewiston residents pay $148 each per year to keep the Fire Department in hoses, trucks and firefighters. Bangor residents pay $247 each for the same thing.

People in Augusta contribute $44 each to help pay off municipal debt. Biddeford folks pay twice as much: $90 each.

Portland residents are saddled with a combined city-school budget that’s three times higher than any of the others, but less of that money goes to schools (53 percent) than in neighboring South Portland (68 percent).

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And Auburn, which has a reputation for sky-high taxes, actually requires that residents hand over less money than some other cities to pay for police and fire departments. It’s also pretty middle-of-the-road for each person’s share of school debt ($108) and school capital expenses ($69).

When it comes to fair share, a Sun Journal analysis shows, a city’s tax rate doesn’t tell the whole story. A look at spending by seven of Maine’s largest cities — Lewiston, Auburn, Portland, Biddeford, South Portland, Augusta and Bangor — reveals there’s more to spending than taxpayers might think.

Spending per resident

The Sun Journal’s analysis began with city budgets. It also included 2012-13 budget and spending information provided by school systems, numbers from the U.S. Census and figures from the cities’ annual reports.

While the Sun Journal was able to obtain information regarding Augusta’s municipal spending, the Augusta superintendent’s office did not respond to repeated requests for information on school spending. That data is largely absent from the accompanying charts.

When taken together, budget, tax, population and city/school employee numbers provide a more in-depth look at municipal spending than is typically available during budget season. It allows residents to see, for example, how much each is paying for police protection and special education, what percentage of their property taxes are going to schools rather than city programs and how many municipal employees there are per resident.

At least one official took issue with the analysis, pointing out that per-resident spending is not per-taxpayer spending, since some residents (such as children) don’t pay taxes and some taxpayers (such as businesses) aren’t residents. He also noted that education is delivered per child, not per resident.

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Tom Kendall, chairman of the Auburn School Committee, said he’s concerned the numbers will be misleading.

“And it’s not going to help the cause for the community, the taxpayer, their understanding of how public services are paid for and what they’re paying for and what they’re getting for value,” he said.

Kendall declined to comment on any findings that had to do with per-resident spending for Auburn schools. Superintendent Katy Grondin referred those questions to Kendall, saying she agreed with him.

However, Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett called a per-resident comparison fair. It’s one he’s considered important for a long time.

He pointed out that when looking at state-collected property values adjusted for inflation, Lewiston’s 2013 property tax rate is at the top: $20.50 per $1,000 of property value. Auburn’s tax rate is right behind at $19.90. That’s because Bangor, South Portland and Portland have much higher assessed valuations and their budgets are spread around those higher-value properties.

But a per-resident calculation shows how much city services cost each and every person, whether they live in a waterfront home or a studio apartment. Per resident, Lewiston has the lowest total budget, the lowest tax requirement to pay for both city programs and schools and the lowest tax requirement to pay for schools compared to any of the cities the Sun Journal considered.

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“We’re managing to provide services to our residents for less than other communities,” Barrett said.

Some school leaders questioned whether the school budget information would be comparable, because school systems may place the same item in a different budget category and may define positions like “administrator” differently.

The Sun Journal worked to ensure that all data was uniform, including asking the same questions of all school leaders in the same way and with the same level of detail.

The results showed some surprises.

City by city

Bangor has a middle-of the-road $41.2 million school budget. But with 32,817 residents, it had the lowest per-person share. Residents also paid less each than anyone else for school debt, school employee salaries and school administration salaries. Residents paid the second-least for special education.

“I think it has a lot to do with years of efficient management,” Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb said. “And we really have taken advantage of the economy of scale.”

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One way Bangor schools keep costs down: Every adult must oversee more children. Bangor has the highest ratio of students to school employees and students to school administrators.

Lewiston has the second-biggest school budget at $53.8 million, but residents each pay among the least for school employee salaries — $764 each compared to $1,017 in South Portland and $928 in Auburn, just across the river.

Lewiston residents pay the most for special education and capital expenses, a fact that didn’t surprise Superintendent Bill Webster.

Lewiston is a service center with a reputation for serving special-needs children, he said, and families sometimes move to the city for that — a boost in special education enrollment also boosts costs. The school system is growing in other ways, too, requiring residents to spend more of their education money on building expansions, renovations and improvements.

“(A school system) with declining enrollment doesn’t need to be thinking about additional space,” Webster said.

Even with that, Lewiston residents see a greater share of their local-only taxes going toward city spending rather than schools — about 36 percent of their taxes pay for schools and about 63 percent pay for city programs.

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Barrett had a matter-of-fact explanation as to why.

“We are a heavy receiver of state aid,” he said. “We get a higher percentage of our school budget from General Purpose Aid from the state and that offsets many of our costs.”

For example, Lewiston schools received $36 million in state aid, which covered most of the total $54 million education budget. In Auburn, $20.5 million in state aid covers the bulk of the $35.9 million education budget.

But Barrett said it’s not a situation Twin Cities taxpayers should get used to. New state rules could require Lewiston — and Auburn — to increase the share of local taxes to pay for eduction.

“If we get up to the states’ required minimum local share, it’s likely that people will see the school’s share of the city budget increase,” he said.

Barrett said taxpayers could notice that next year.

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Then there’s debt for Lewiston. About 8.6 percent of the city budget is devoted to annual debt payments. That’s three times more than in Biddeford and Bangor, and almost six times more than Augusta and South Portland.

About $2.4 million of Lewiston’s $8.6 million debt service goes to interest and fees. The remaining $6.2 million pays for road repairs and big projects the city first financed up to 20 years ago. Big items on Lewiston’s list: renovations at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee and the Bates Mill Enterprise Complex, expansion of the Lewiston Public Library into the Pilsbury Block, and garage and parking lot construction.

“Another big one is the Maine State retirement consolidated plan; all of the municipalities had to buy out portions of that,” said Lewiston Finance Director Heather Hunter. “The principal on that issue is $600,000 by itself.”

Biddeford residents know what it’s like to pay for debt, though theirs is school more than city. Their $32.1 million school budget is the lowest of the six school systems, but they pay by far the most for debt — $200 per person compared to half that in most of the other school systems and just under $50 per person in Bangor. That’s because Biddeford recently paid $34 million to renovate its high school and is still paying off a new middle school built seven years ago.

Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray said the $32.1 million school budget has changed little in recent years, even though residents are paying more toward debt. To offset the cost, he said, the school system has trimmed spending in other places.

“We’ve cut about $2 million over the course of the year,” he said. “We saved $120,000 on renegotiating our plow contract. That’s a pretty good day. We just have to keep working on those non-instructional expenses and keep thinking of creative ways to deliver the service at a lower cost.”

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Other cities are concerned about things other than cost. South Portland residents pay $1,594 each for schools, the highest, and set aside the greatest share of their local tax money (nearly 68 percent) for schools. Residents pay the most each for salaries and have more employees and administrators per student than the others.

That’s because South Portland likes its small, neighborhood schools, including five elementary schools and two middle schools.

“That is a decision that our community has made and continues to support,” Godin said. “Our community has always had a very strong neighborhood belief system and structure.”

How can South Portland afford that? In part because residents pay the least for municipal debt and public works, big costs in other cities. City Manager Jim Galey believes his city’s success depends on meticulous financial planning and forecasts.

It doesn’t borrow to buy firetrucks, for example, and instead sets aside revenue each year to replace the vehicles debt-free.

“It’s knowing what we need well before we need it and properly planning for it,” Galey said. “Our valuation is healthy and for services we offer everything. We have the municipal pool and a transit service. We have the full gamut of municipal services here, and it’s all about being very frugal.”

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South Portland also benefits from having the second-lowest road miles to maintain in the Sun Journal’s comparison. The city has plenty of roads — 117 centerline miles, according to the Maine Department of Transportation — but more than 30 of those miles are state-maintained.

Size matters, too.

“We have 25,002 people in 12 square miles,” Galey said. “That keeps our budget in check a little bit because we don’t have the mass amount of land that we have to travel all over for road maintenance. We don’t have multiple fire stations to protect the community. We are very compact.”

Auburn, on the other hand, has 155 miles of city-maintained road, the second-highest number on the Sun Journal’s list. Only Portland, with a public works budget that’s nearly three times higher than Auburn’s, has more road to pave in the summer and to plow in the winter.

“We are doing an awful lot of miles per person,” Auburn City Manager Clinton Deschene said.

And with lower property values to generate taxes, the city must borrow to pay for that road work and other capital projects. Like Lewiston, Auburn tends toward the high end on debt-service payments. Auburn residents pay more each for debt (nearly $291) than residents of any city but Portland.

Auburn residents also see a greater share of their local-only taxes go toward city spending, rather than schools. About 60 percent of Auburn’s taxes go to city programs, second only to Lewiston, where 63 percent goes to the city.

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However, Auburn doesn’t spend a lot of that city money on fire or police. They pay among the least for a fire department. They pay the very least for police, spending just under $150 each, a few dollars less than Lewiston residents and a full $100 less than people in Bangor. Deschene said that’s apparent among Auburn residents and police officers.

“You find that where we pay the price for that is in the area of traffic patrol,” Deschene said. “There is a priority among calls. If there is a crime in progress, versus a request for a traffic patrol on Center Street for speeders, we’re going to the crime in progress. That’s a higher priority.”

When it comes to schools, Auburn residents set aside about 40 percent of their local-only tax money. They pay toward the high end for special education and salaries, including administrative salaries. But in a surprising twist, residents in Auburn — internationally known for giving iPads to kindergartners — spend the least on technology.

They contribute less than $11 per person, half what Bangor and South Portland residents pay.

One possible reason: Auburn’s technology spending appears cyclical. A budget history provided by the school system shows it budgeted $518,000 for technology two years ago, about $144,000 last year and about $248,000 this year.

It has asked for $544,000 for the next school year.

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