City gears up for budget season with eye towards minimizing tax increases
Belfast — As city officials prepare to tackle their budget for 2014-2015, keeping property taxes as manageable as possible is the primary focus.
Councilors passed an $8.1 million budget for fiscal year 2013-2014 that represented a zero-percent increase over the previous year's budget; however, City Manager Joseph Slocum cautioned it is unlikely the city will be able to pass a similar budget for 2014-2015.
During an interview Friday, Feb. 14, in his City Hall office, Slocum said each of the city's department heads are in the process of combing through their own budgets in an effort to present as a lean of a budget as possible.
Slocum said part of the budget review process the city goes through helps officials identify any areas where Belfast could operate more efficiently. He said he feels the majority of residents support the number of employees and facilities the city has, as does the council.
That sentiment was echoed by Councilor Roger Lee who said he is approaching this year's budget much like he has in the past with careful scrutiny of any proposed increases, while also attempting to fund city services at adequate levels.
In terms of the number of city employees, Lee said he feels Belfast is being run “very lean” and didn't believe the council is prepared to cut any positions. On the other hand, though, he also stated he isn't sure officials would be prepared to add any personnel, either.
“I think that Belfast has been very, very careful with its spending,” Lee said.
Lee noted he believed there may be some interest in increasing some city services, but he said those increases have been few and far between in the past. For example, he said past increases in city services involved hiring an economic development director, a position he feels has benefited the city significantly, and an assistant city planner due to the increased work load in the planning department.
There is some concern regarding the staffing levels of the police department, Lee said, but there will need to be discussion about whether the city could afford to add any more officers.
Finding a way to fund city services without overly burdening taxpayers can be a delicate balancing act, Slocum said, because during past budget reviews, councilors have considered instituting across-the-board, 5-percent cuts to city departments.
However, implementing such broad cuts would result in some departments being shut down for at least one day a week, Slocum said. He didn't feel that residents would support such a move and councilors opted not to pursue across-the-board cuts.
As councilors prepare for the budget season, Lee said he is concerned about the Regional School Unit 20 budget, which he said he anticipates will increase again this year. In past years, when the school budget increased, the city used some of its surplus funding to offset the increase to taxpayers.
He explained the reasoning behind using surplus funds to offset property tax increases due to the school budget was that the 2008 recession would only last for a few years. However, the recession lasted longer than anticipated and city officials realized they could not continue to draw down the surplus account.
“It wouldn't be sound government to continue to pay for the schools out of surplus,” Lee said.
Lee said he also does not think it would be possible to cut the city's budget based on however much the school budget increases in a given year.
Councilor Nancy Hamilton said she would also approach this year's budget process much as she has in the past with a focus on the “need to haves,” such as snow plowing, versus the “nice to haves.” Hamilton also said in an email to The Republican Journal city officials need to keep in mind that the decisions they make have a profound impact on the taxpayers, many of whom are on a fixed income.
Finally, she said she will seek to craft a budget that balances affordable taxes with spending that allows Belfast to continue to grow and thrive.
Part of Slocum's approach to crafting a budget is finding a way to balance the needs of the community while also helping businesses in the city expand. For example, Slocum said the decision by Front Street Shipyard to locate in Belfast has resulted in the city receiving about $160,00 in property taxes from the company.
While presenting another zero-percent-increase budget may not be possible for the fiscal year 2015 budget, Slocum said he is confident that council members, who are “veteran Belfast budget examiners,” will carefully weigh any and all proposed spending increases.
Ben Holbrook is a reporter for The Republican Journal covering general news.
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