AUBURN — It’s hot. It’s July. And voter interest in a second Auburn school budget referendum on July 23 is down, according to the number of absentee ballots taken out so far.

Before the June 11 referendum, 541 absentee ballots were taken out. On Monday, there were 182 requests for absentee ballots for the July 23 vote. So far, 99 of those ballots have been returned, according to Alison Pepin in the City Clerk’s office.

“That’s low. That hurts us,” said former City Councilor Ron Potvin, who led the effort to defeat the school budget on June 11.

“We are definitely having trouble keeping interest with this,” Potvin said Monday. “To have a citywide vote in July is the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen. A ton of people are not even around. It’s been very frustrating.” When he asks people where are they going to be on July 23, “they don’t realize there’s another vote coming up.”

Potvin predicted the July 23 vote will be close, decided by 25 to 50 people.

Since the budget was defeated, the Auburn School Committee cut $874,830 in spending. The proposal went from $38.37 million (6.9 percent hike from the previous year) to $37.67 million budget (a 4.9 percent hike).

Several positions, including a librarian, school secretary and special education teacher, have been eliminated. The School Committee agreed to use extra state money and take over paying for the school police officers from the city hall budget at a cost of $170,315.

Still, Potvin said the school budget is too high, that the increase from last year should be no more than 1.7 percent. He complained the School Department received more money from the state “and has three-quarters of a million dollars in the fund balance. The School Department has an amazing way of pulling money out of nowhere.”

A new state law will require Auburn and Lewiston in three years to pay more in local taxpayer money for education than it currently does due to the Essential Programs and Services Funding formula. Potvin said that does not need to be addressed this year.

Auburn School Committee Chairman Tom Kendall countered that the budget is not too high, that Potvin is not looking at all the needs facing Auburn schools and that a Consumer Price Index increase of 1.7 percent is too small.

“What he does not understand is the impact of contracted wage increases, ridiculously high increase in health premiums this year of 13 percent, increase in energy costs” and more, Kendall said.

As to the fund balance of $800,000, that rainy day fund contributes to the city’s credit rating, “which saves the city money by reducing the interest paid on the city bond debt,” he said.

The state recommends school districts have a 2 percent savings account. Auburn is on target with its savings, Kendall said.

And Potvin and other school budget critics don’t recognize the impact of education on economic development, Kendall said.

Without a quality, attractive school system, Auburn can’t attract new residents or new businesses. Numerous reports show “we are significantly underfunding education,” Kendall said, as evidenced by the EPS numbers.

“The school board will do its best to reverse the decline, but we absolutely need the community support to do so,” Kendall said, adding he hopes citizens vote for the budget.

Considering that the budget supports nine schools, its numbers are low, Kendall said.

The proposed school budget on the July 23 ballot would raise property taxes by $55 on a home valued at $150,000, according to the School Department. When adding the city budget, taxes on that $150,000 home would go up about $166 compared to 2012-13.

The last day to get an absentee ballot is Thursday; the City Clerk’s office will stay open that day until 6 p.m.

Voting on July 23 is at Auburn Hall from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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