LEWISTON — In the context of “you have to spend more to get more,” Superintendent Bill Webster is proposing a bigger contribution from Lewiston taxpayers to avoid losing state money for education in his proposed $74.3 million budget.

The increase would be temporary, he said.

Anticipated taxes for schools would go down after the state either provided more money for schools, or the state budget didn’t increase how much more Lewiston taxpayers have to spend to avoid losing state money.

“It’s complicated,” Webster said.

During a joint meeting of the City Council and School Committee on Monday night, Webster said that this year there are more unknowns than usual in state education funding.

Gov. Paul LePage has cut $40 million from the school funding formula for district administrative staffing. Some legislators want to put that money back in.

Another unknown is whether a citizen initiative passed by voters in November to impose a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 to help fund schools will take effect.

State lawmakers may decide to give schools more money than what the governor has proposed. “By all accounts, state funding is going up,” Webster said. But the state budget won’t be finalized until June.

But according to the city charter, residents must vote on the school budget in May. The referendum is May 9.

The problem is, Webster said, if the state provides more money for schools, it could also increase Lewiston’s expected minimum contribution. If that happens, for every $1 Lewiston doesn’t pay in the minimum contribution, the city would lose $3 in state funding.

And once Lewiston votes on the school budget, officials cannot increase the local contribution to match a higher state contribution, Webster said.

So he recommended Monday that Lewiston plan for more state money — and more from local taxpayers — by increasing the current mill rate of $10.30 for every $1,000 of valuation to $10.59.

That would mean an annual tax hike of about $42 for a home valued at $150,000.

It wouldn’t come to that, Webster said, explaining that if more money didn’t come from the state, or if Lewiston didn’t have to raise more, taxes would be lowered.

“We can always reduce taxes after the referendum, but we can’t increase them,” he said. “If we get more money from the state, it would be used to reduce the local tax burden down to the minimum required local share to get maximum state funding.”

In the long run, it would not mean higher taxes for education in Lewiston; the mill rate would be reduced to the current level, Webster said.

School Committee Chairwoman Linda Scott asked city councilors for feedback.

Jim Lysen said he’d support Webster’s plan on the condition that money would be returned to taxpayers and that the complicated plan would be explained well to taxpayers.

“We can’t afford to leave money on the table,” Lysen said. Everyone’s concerned about the burden on property taxpayers, he said.

“We need a campaign to really explain it,” he said.

Councilors Isobel Golden, Joline Landry Beam and Kristen Cloutier agreed with Lysen, but Cloutier cautioned that the School Department has to get the word out to voters.

She recalled how last year the budget failed in the first vote with a dismal low voter turnout.

The second school budget passed when more voters showed up.

Councilor Shane Bouchard was less enthusiastic about the plan.

“I don’t like it,” he said.

Councilor Michael Lachance also didn’t seem enthralled. He said he was taking a “wait and see” position.

Taxpayer advocate Ron Potvin said that even if Lewiston did end up losing state funding because the local contribution went up, “there’s a population out there that would say, ‘You know what? Take the hit this year. Figure it out for next year.’ But keep the taxes where it’s at. You’re still getting a significant increase.'”

That’s his worry, Webster said, explaining that because Lewiston received more students after the budget was passed last spring, the extra money from the state had to be spent to support more students.

“The increase is predicated on higher enrollments, higher special ed costs, higher transportation costs that we’ve already incurred,” Webster said. “It’s not like Lewiston is receiving a windfall. This is reimbursement” for money already spent.

After hearing Superintenent Bill Webster make his case Monday night that Lewiston may have to spend more temporarily in order to avoid losing state dollars for education, City Councilor Jim Lysen, left, said he would support that, providing that money be returned to taxpayers. To his left are, from left, City Councilors Isobel Golden, Shane Bouchard, Kristen Cloutier and Joline Landry Bean.

Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster explained his proposed $74.3 million school budget to city councilors Monday night at Lewiston Middle School. To Webster’s right are, from right, Committee Chairwoman Linda Scott and School Committee members Paul St. Pierre, Ben Martin and Luke Jensen.

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