LEWISTON — City officials on Tuesday balanced apprehension for budget increases that would add to Lewiston’s higher-than-average tax rate, while signaling the need to support students and programs that have felt the brunt of the pandemic for the past year.

Councilors began budget deliberations for the fiscal 2022 budget Tuesday, getting an updated look at the proposed school budget, which calls for a $3.9 million increase.

While the $92.5 million budget benefits from an increase in state aid and COVID-19 relief funding, it is slated to add $1 to the property tax rate, which combined with the municipal spending plan, had several councilors nervous.

School officials said next year’s budget was whittled down from an initial increase of $15 million, and can take advantage of roughly $4 million in relief funds that can be used over the next two years.

Superintendent Jake Langlais said the budget targets remediation, English language learners and “kids who are behind,” in the year following the pandemic.

“I’m excited about this budget,” he said. “I do think it’s responsible, but it also maintains our professionals who have worked tirelessly this year.”

He added that it also “targets early interventions like never before.”

Langlais said with the available relief funding, the district was able to move positions and other expenses out of the budget to be funded by relief dollars. He said school administration attempted to strike a “careful balance” amid concerns that relying on the relief funding for needed positions and programs could create a “cliff” in two years.

“They will come to a head at some point, and we have to be mindful they don’t create a cliff,” he said.

The budget also proposes to use $4.5 million in carryover funds.

Some councilors seemed wary of supporting the school budget as it stands, including former School Committee member Luke Jensen.

He said he’s worried that when the relief funding is no longer available, it’s “going to hit taxpayers hard.”

“We’re either going to have to make huge cuts to the budget or increase taxes,” he said.

But, he said, he’s not in favor of taking the “approach of demanding the schools come in with a 0% increase” due to the needs in Lewiston schools.

He also said in an election year, if the council moves ahead with a budget that is too high, and is ultimately voted down by voters, “the entire council could be replaced by people who are not supportive of school spending.”

Councilor Alicia Rea, who serves as the council’s representative to the School Committee, said the budget has been “labored over” by the committee, and that she hopes “we can keep it whole moving forward.”

Several officials referenced the city’s property tax rate when discussing the proposed budgets.

Mayor Mark Cayer said Lewiston is a city with a high level of poverty, that is “overburdened with property taxes.”

“If we creep up to (a $30 tax rate) we’ll be near the top of the state,” he said, which he argued would limit Lewiston’s economic development activity.

While Rea argued that “education is economic development,” Cayer responded, “If we get ourselves to having the highest tax rate in the state, we will not get there.”

The tax rate in Lewiston is $28.67 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. As it stands, the proposed fiscal 2022 municipal budget calls for an increase of 79 cents, which combined with the proposed school increase and county tax, would equal a total tax increase of $1.81, or a rate of $30.48.

A home valued at $150,000 would see a $271 increase in property taxes. For a $250,000 home, the increase would be $452.

However, it appears likely that will change. Councilors on Tuesday began the process of eliminating some municipal budget requests, including some proposed positions, in hopes of lowering the municipal increase.

While no official votes were taken, councilors seemed to form majorities in favor of a new Human Resources position focused on equity, which was among the main recommendations from the city’s Equity and Diversity Committee late last year.

Other positions supported were two crisis intervention workers for the Police Department, Recreation Department positions that had previously been cut due to the pandemic, and an additional fire inspector position.

The City Council is slated to hold a public hearing and vote on the school budget May 4.

A planned citywide revaluation, which is overdue, could play a role in the city’s tax rate.

According to City Assessor William Healey, if property values were based on full market value, the city’s tax rate would be much lower. Healey told the council in February that the “full value” tax rate would be closer to $23 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, rather than the current $28.

A city memo states that if the tax rate decreases at the same percentage as the valuation increase, property taxes will remain nearly the same.

Lewiston homes, on average, are assessed and taxed at 76% of their full market value, while commercial and industrial properties in Lewiston are assessed and taxed at 81% of their value.

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