Lewiston City Councilor Michael Lachance talks about his concerns with the school budget during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting at City Hall.

LEWISTON — The City Council voted 4-3 to approve the school budget Tuesday, sending the $74.3 million spending plan on to voters next week. 

Councilors Tim Lajoie, Michael Lachance and Shane Bouchard voted against the proposed budget. 

Voters will get their say during the school budget validation referendum scheduled for Tuesday, May 9. Last year’s turnout was 2.8 percent of registered voters. (See related story.) 

There was no discussion from the public Tuesday.

Pinning down next year’s school budget has been clouded by the state budget, which likely won’t be finalized until sometime in June. According to the city charter, Lewiston’s budget must be passed by the end of May. 

Superintendent of Schools Bill Webster has said Lewiston will likely receive additional funding from the state, and throughout the budget process he has tried to lay out multiple scenarios that could play out based on the final state funding levels. 

Numbers unknown 

Asked about the school budget’s effect on the property tax rate, City Administrator Ed Barrett said that number may also be in flux. He said the tax rate impact could end up anywhere from 31 cents more per $1,000 of property value to 1 cent less, depending on the final state numbers. 

Lewiston is already seeing a large jump in state aid to education for next year, based on a variety of factors, including its growing enrollment. Lewiston’s enrollment is nearly 5,600, the city has gained 850 students since 2007.

If Lewiston receives additional state funding in June, the School Committee would first use the funds to reduce taxes to the minimum required local share, which could be as low as a $10.29 property tax rate. Any leftover funds are then used to cover emergency expenditures only.

“Effectively at this point, we’re in a holding pattern,” Barrett told the council. “This budget would keep us at the required local share, recognizing we’re not sure what it’s going to be.” 

Lachance said he’s concerned about how the leftover funds might be spent, instead of going toward property tax relief for residents.

“This has gone on for too long, year after year,” he said, regarding spending. 

However, Barrett said if Lewiston receives more state money but the school budget does not raise the local contribution, it could mean Lewiston would lose state money for not meeting the local share. 

Webster said any funding that goes into reserve would be available to mitigate tax increases the next year.

Lajoie said that despite the state “tying our hands” with the funding formula, he doesn’t trust government to be “fiscally prudent” with any extra funds. 

Residents can learn more 

Webster and other school officials will host an informational meeting about the proposed school budget at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Lewiston Middle School.

Webster will present the budget and answer questions leading up to the referendum next week. 

The growing enrollment in Lewiston schools means more than 30 new positions in the budget, most for special education. Webster said 18 were added last fall, while 13½ are new.

Once students with special needs are in Lewiston, the School Department is legally required to provide an appropriate education. Some of the new students require one-on-one staffing, Webster said.

Other reasons for the higher budget include a 3 percent wage increase, higher health care costs, and three new positions to boost graduation rates. Lewiston High School’s four-year graduation rate of 69 percent is the lowest in Maine. If improved to 80 percent, the state subsidy would jump by $1 million a year.

Another reason for the higher budget is an $872,000 bond for the new Connors Elementary School expected to break ground this month. The bond will be paid for by the state, but it’s in the budget both as an expense and as revenue, Webster said. Without the bond, the proposed budget is up about 6.6 percent.

Budget process nears end

The City Council also hosted its final public hearing on the city’s proposed budget Tuesday, with limited public comment. 

As of now, the municipal budget stands at $44.8 million, but Barrett said that is also subject to change.  

He said the current figures would see the property tax rate increase by 45 cents, a 1.6 percent increase. But, he said, if the state approves its proposed increase of the Homestead Exemption, most taxpayers in Lewiston could see a small tax bill decrease.

The council is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday, May 9. 

Resident and mayoral candidate Charles Soule said there should be a chance for public comment on May 9, in case any last-minute budget amendments are made prior to a vote. 

A Lewiston firefighter said he was also concerned that if items are removed from the budget next week, that the public have a chance to speak. 

“If you come down here and you wish to speak, have to it,” Mayor Bob Macdonald said Tuesday. 

Barrett said amending the proposed budget takes four votes from the council, and adopting the final budget will take five votes. 

The council also approved other pieces of the municipal budget Tuesday, including the Community Development Block Grant budget and the water, sewer and stormwater utility budgets. 

The stormwater and sewer rates are set to increase next year. That budget was approved by a 5-2 vote. 

Also approved unanimously was $2.3 million in spending from the city’s unassigned fund balance for capital purchases and other one-time costs, and city funding for a number of nonprofit organizations and events.

Staff Writer Bonnie Washuk contributed to this report. 

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald speaks at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting at City Hall.


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