AUBURN — The City Council passed a resolution Monday directing school officials to trim an additional $400,000 from its proposed budget, as both bodies struggle with uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

City officials, which also rolled out next year’s proposed municipal budget Monday, were originally voting on a resolution that would limit the School Department’s proposed increase to $1.4 million — a number the School Committee had already found a way to beat.

However, due to concerns over the economic impact of the coronavirus, and a previously announced savings in health insurance costs for the School Department, councilors voted unanimously to urge the additional cuts.

The School Department proposal is an overall budget increase of $1.26 million, which represents an increase to the amount raised by property taxes of $769,310.

The council’s resolution, motioned by Councilor Leroy Walker, sought to roughly halve the increase to $350,000.

“My concern is we’re in uncharted territory,” said Councilor Brian Carrier, who also serves as the council’s representative on the School Committee. “I’m concerned we’re going to be losing more revenue.”

But, Carrier said, he’d like school officials to “cut out as much as we can without cutting teaching positions.”

The school budget conversation came after councilors saw initial budget figures on the municipal side, which combined with the school budget, propose a 77-cent increase to the property tax rate.

The proposal would put Auburn’s tax rate at $24.52 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. A home valued at $200,000 would see an increase of $154.

“I think it’s a disaster if we go over $24,” Councilor Walker said. “It’s a lot of money. We’re in a desperate place right now.”

“I think both need to be cut given the economic conditions,” said Councilor Belinda Gerry regarding the city and school budgets.

The council’s final action on the school budget does not occur until May 11. The school budget validation referendum, normally held in June, may need to be changed depending on what happens with the pandemic, officials said.

CITY BUDGET

During an earlier workshop, City Manager Peter Crichton presented his proposed municipal budget for fiscal 2021.

The $41.9 million budget proposal is an increase of $1.54 million on the city side, with intergovernmental expenditures with Lewiston increasing by $336,824.

Crichton said the city increase includes a 2% “cost of living” increase of $293,000 and a 9% health insurance increase totaling $312,697.

City officials have a series of budget workshops scheduled with city department heads, and many on the council commented on the need for cuts Monday. The presentations begin Thursday.

The current pandemic will likely play a huge factor during budget discussions, and has officials already planning for how to help bolster economic recovery.

Crichton said he and staff were conservative in their revenue increase estimates given the pandemic.

Some said the proposed $9.5 million in capital expenses is too much.

“This budget feels to me a little like business as usual,” Councilor Holly Lasagna said. “The city is running, but it’s not business as usual for a lot of people out there. We need to think of what this is going to mean for the individual person out there.”

“We need to recover quickly,” Mayor Jason Levesque said. “Whatever we’re spending money on, does it speed up our economic recovery? Or does it hamper recovery by putting our tax rate too high?”

“It’s going to be important for us to show economic responsibility, and get as close to a 0% increase as possible,” Councilor Stephen Milks said.

Councilor Katie Boss said that while officials consider cuts, they should also be looking at places that could use increases to respond to the pandemic, such as the city’s “Feeding Auburn” funds, which were recently used to roll out a “Grab N Go” meals program.


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