LEWISTON — The School Department is planning to cut an additional $1.1 million from next year’s budget, designed to avoid city layoffs while helping taxpayers during the pandemic.

If ultimately approved by the School Committee, school officials said the revised $88.6 million budget would represent a 41-cent decrease to the property tax rate from the school side compared to last year.

During a school budget workshop Thursday, city officials said requests to cut both budgets have come in response to large revenue shortfalls expected due to the crisis. As a result, the City Council asked the municipal and school budgets to reflect a zero percent increase to property taxes.

Speaking to the School Committee on Thursday, Mayor Mark Cayer said he’s been hearing every day from residents experiencing hardships due to the pandemic.

“We recognize we’re asking a lot from the School Department,” he said. “We just think now is not the time to pass on any tax increase to the residents and property owners of Lewiston.”

For the School Department, almost all of the cuts will be offset by the federal coronavirus relief bill for public school systems, officials said.

For the municipal budget, the outlook is particularly dire.

City Administrator Ed Barrett said city staff is estimating a revenue shortfall of about $1.6 million between state revenue-sharing and excise tax, based on what Lewiston experienced in the late 2000s during the recession.

Barrett told school officials that even with using $1.6 million in fund balance to make up the difference, substantial cuts would still need to be made to arrive at the council’s request of a zero percent tax increase.

A number of scenarios were presented to the council, but he said in order to get down to zero, the city would need to cut 18 positions, including six layoffs and 12 positions that are vacant.

Barrett said he has proposed keeping the city’s increase at $270,000 in order to avoid the layoffs, but will require the additional cuts on the school side to make up for it.

Bobbi Avery, chief financial officer for the School Department, said Thursday that she has since “worked very hard” with city staff to look at the crisis “very holistically rather than city versus School Department.”

She said the department is expecting roughly $2 million from the federal coronavirus relief bill and is proposing about $718,000 be used toward the $1.1 million in budget cuts.

The bulk of the cuts are in health insurance, which came in lower than expected, and will not result in any staff layoffs, Avery said.

Avery said the district is expecting to receive the funding sometime in June.

While School Committee members appeared largely in favor of the decision, some questioned part of the proposal that would cut the district’s Capital Improvement spending.

The School Department had included in its budget a parking lot expansion project at McMahon Elementary, as well as a security project at the Dingley Building.

School Committee member Bruce Damon said “it seems like a poor time” not to issue bonds for capital projects given very low interest rates.

“I feel like we’ve done our fair share of reducing this year. I don’t want to go backwards,” member Ron Potvin said.

The School Committee will vote on the budget measures during its next regular meeting.

The 2019-20 tax rate in Lewiston was $28.91 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.


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