LEWISTON — The city is leaving 12 positions unfilled as part of next year’s spending plan, passed unanimously by the City Council on Tuesday.

After planning for a steep drop in revenues due to the pandemic, officials proposed a budget for 2020-21 that will lower the property tax rate by 24 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. With the approval Tuesday, it will be the first tax rate decrease since 2008.

According to city staff, the hiring freeze will leave two police officer positions vacant, as well as a fire inspector, finance clerk and a recreation programmer that several people Tuesday said was “vital” to the department’s programs.

Due to the pandemic, Lewiston Recreation’s summer programs are all but canceled, but staff members said the loss of the programmer position would put all future recreation programs in jeopardy.

City administration and councilors agreed that the recreation position would be among the first to be reconsidered if the city’s revenue projections are “too pessimistic.”

The remaining positions to remain vacant belong to Public Works: a project engineer; engineering technician, electrician, two mechanics and an equipment operator.

City Administrator Ed Barrett said staff will “reassess” the situation in the coming months, but that staff tried to be “responsible in our revenue efforts.”

Municipalities so far this budget season have planned differently for the pandemic, estimating cuts in state revenue-sharing from between 5% to 60%.

“The reality of this budget process is that there’s so much uncertainty,” he said. “I think this is as close as we can get to a ‘no harm’ budget.”

The tax rate of $28.67 per $1,000 of assessed valuation would represent a $48 savings for a property valued at $200,000.

Officials said the fire inspector position was planned to be a new position this year, a result of the city’s rental registration efforts to conduct more proactive inspections of multifamily properties.

At Public Works, he said, the vacant mechanic positions will require the department to send more work to outside mechanics.

Regarding the Recreation Department, Barrett said not filling the programmer position likely will have “the greatest mid-to-longer-range impact” given how much the position was responsible for.

The programmer runs the annual summer camp, which includes large basketball and soccer programs.

“One of the issues here is we don’t know when we’ll be able to put the programs back in business,” Barrett said. “It’s possible if things improve we can start things again in the fall.”

In order to offset a projected $1.6 million revenue loss, the city is using a similar amount from its fund balance, or “rainy day” fund.

“This is the type of situation the rainy day fund is designed to address,” Barrett said, but added that officials cannot plan for that same buffer in coming budgets.

Most councilors Tuesday commended the end result, and work with school officials, given the unprecedented circumstances.

Finance Director Heather Hunter said that between the initial budget proposals and final cuts made by the school and City Council, officials reduced the impact to the tax rate by $1.99.

With the budget approvals Tuesday, the council also unanimously passed roughly $11 million in bonding for the annual Capital Improvement Program.

PANDEMIC RELIEF 

Also on Tuesday, the City Council approved coronavirus relief bill funding that will go toward local pandemic relief programs.

The $538,000 in additional Community Development Block Grant funds will be used to create local programs for rental, mortgage and utility assistance, as well as small business grants.

Tenants and homeowners who are income qualified — making 80% of area median income or less — could receive up to $1,000 for rent or mortgage payments. Payments would go directly to the landlord or mortgage lender. The proposal would also provide up to $500 for a period of three months for utility payments.

The funding will also pay $55,000 for a General Assistance position, with that office tasked with processing all applications for the programs.


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