AUBURN — City and school officials delved into the finer points of next year’s budget at a joint meeting Monday, as Mayor Jason Levesque pushed to find savings by collaborating. 

Throughout the two-plus-hour workshop, elected officials discussed Auburn’s school budget, Capital Improvement Plan and new high school project. 

Levesque led the meeting in an often blunt tone, directing officials to take a closer look at spending and where money could be saved. And the mayor’s comments on the upcoming budgets mirror his approach to a city branding campaign. 

“We need to be competitive,” he said, referring to the overall property tax rate. “How do we best utilize the assets the city has? In order for us to promote Auburn, we have to smartly expend our dollars.”

He said that means some “serious discussion” and “cutting of unnecessary spending.” He also pressed for the city’s audit and procurement committee to meet more regularly to discuss ways the city and School Department can find savings. 

“There needs to be a sense of urgency in my opinion,” he said. 

Superintendent of Schools Katy Grondin called next year’s $44 million spending plan a “maintenance budget” that will reduce class sizes by adding new positions. The budget also proposes four new buses on top of regular increases in employee salaries and benefits. 

The budget represents as 2.6 percent increase to the local property tax rate. 

Levesque also pressed school officials on transportation costs, at one point stating that when the School Department subcontracted its bus services, it neglected the buses, which is why it needs to buy more.  

However, school officials said the cost of the new buses will be reimbursed by the state next year.  

On multiple occasions, Councilor Leroy Walker said he didn’t understand the state’s funding guidelines and the required local share. He said that while the state is allocating more state aid to the School Department each year, it’s requiring more of the taxpayer each year as well. 

Officials from both sides identified a few collaborative projects to consider, such as consolidating LED lighting projects and roof replacement projects on school and city buildings. Even consolidating printing on a new Xerox printer proposed by the school was considered. 

School Committee Chairman Tom Kendall said the committee is waiting for council and public feedback before making final adjustments on next year’s budget. The committee is holding a public hearing on the budget Wednesday. 

New school

Levesque called the upcoming high school construction project “the elephant in the room.” 

He called on officials to work more collaboratively during the building process to make sure its athletic facilities could be open to the entire community. He pointed to the city’s recent study on sports tourism, which highlighted a need for more availability of indoor and outdoor sports facilities for hosting lucrative tournaments. 

“The biggest thing I heard was community access to school fields,” he said, referring to the study.

He said the city is behind the ball in scheduling access and events at its facilities, including the School Department’s. 

Grondin gave an updated timeline for the school project, stating that officials hope to announce the site at the end of May. Following that, there will be a public straw poll on the location.

During the summer,, she said, the Building Committee will move into the concept design, hosting educational specification workshops. A referendum on the school is planned for spring 2019. 

Included in the city’s Capital Improvement Plan for next year is $13.4 million to finance the new high school, which is intended to cover a year gap before state funding will reimburse the city. 

Councilor Bob Hayes said any new athletic fields associated with the schools should be built first to “get the community excited.” 

Infrastructure spending  

City and school officials Monday also laid out their potential infrastructure spending in next year’s budget. 

The city’s Capital Improvement Plan proposes $16.43 million in projects for fiscal 2018-19, with the School Department accounting for $2.2 million of the capital spending. 

However, City Manager Peter Crichton reminded officials that the plan is simply a “wish list” of projects for city and school departments. He estimates that the city can only afford to fund roughly $8 million in projects next year. About $7.4 million was spent on capital projects this year. 

Crichton said he will make his recommendations for next year’s Capital Improvement Plan and operating budget spending during the April 2 council meeting. 

Among the big-ticket items on the municipal side is $886,000 for the New Auburn Village Center restoration, $800,000 for the conversion of all streetlights to LEDs, $1.5 million for road reconstruction, $2.4 million in road resurfacing projects, $807,000 in plow trucks, and $700,000 for a public services warm storage building.  

The School Department’s proposed projects include $529,000 in LED lighting upgrades, $514,000 in lab and classroom casework upgrades, $100,000 in new MacBooks, and $160,000 for lockers at Walton Elementary. The current lockers are 1933 originals. 

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