City Manager Joe Slocum said this week that he anticipates greater expenses and lower revenues in the fiscal year 2010. If the City Council wants to lower taxes as has been the case for the past two years, he said, the city will need to either make cuts or generate new revenue.

Since fiscal year 2007-08, the city has brought the mill rate from 19.3 (dollars per $1,000 of property value) to 18.1.

Slocum said he has heard from Maine Municipal Association that Belfast will get $154,000 less in municipal revenue-sharing, and $18,000 less in road assistance in the fiscal year 2010-11. And the creation of an economic development director position in the coming year will add $100,000 to the budget’s bottom line. Slocum described the new position as an investment that may pay off in several years, “but there’s a[n immediate] cost associated with it.”

Slocum also anticipated paying more for the 26,800 gallons of heating oil the city uses annually than the $2.04 per gallon price locked in last year.

“With it known that revenues are going to be down, and that expenses are going to be up, we’re going to have to come up with some extra money somewhere,” Slocum said. “Outside agencies are asking for funding and departments are asking for enhancements.”

In the likely event that there are more services than money to pay for them, Slocum said, the Council could consider charging for services that traditionally have been free to residents and visitors. Here, he offered a series of hypotheticals.

The municipal parking lots at Washington Street and Cross Street are intended for daytime use, for example, but have historically been used for overnight parking by people with apartments downtown. In light of the $75,000 the city has set aside to repave the lots, he asked, should downtown apartment dwellers pay a parking fee?

Sewer fees cover the operating costs of the water treatment plant, but the bills are processed by the city tax collector. “And if a sewer line breaks, public works fixes it,” he said. Slocum said he may ask if the Council is receptive to asking the wastewater treatment plant – an enterprise fund – to pay a fee to cover the cost of billing.

“These are just ideas. They’re not meant to antagonize anybody,” he said. “I’ve had some councilors talk about austerity; I’ve heard some talk about spending money. I really want to know, what does a majority of the Council want to do?”

He offered other examples. Should library card fees for non-residents go up? Should the city charge a fee to use City Park Pool? If so, should there be a different rate for Belfast residents? What about Walsh Fields?

“We took over Walsh Fields for free and we’re paying $13,000 to maintain them,” he said. “It’s an interesting dynamic. Little League is free for the kids. On the other hand, you shift over to the YMCA, which is a very well loved facility here in the community, you have adult leagues [whose members] are paying to play. But they don’t pay for the fields.”

Slocum said the YMCA is the predominant user of Walsh Fields. “And that’s fine. The question is, if [the players] are paying the Y for the league, is there any reason they shouldn’t throw a few bucks in the till to cover the field?”

Another option would be to cut services. Slocum offered Colorado Springs, Colo., as an extreme example of limiting municipal services. The second-largest city in Colorado made headlines recently when city officials announced plans to do away with public trash cans, darken a third of the city’s streetlights, leave vacancies in the police and fire departments unfilled, sell police helicopters, close city recreation and pool buildings and slash park maintenance budgets.

Slumping sales tax returns are cited for Colorado Springs’ woes, but Slocum suspects the scope of services grew quickly in the years leading up to the cuts. So much so, that when hard times hit, the city could no longer afford those things. Belfast is not like Colorado Springs, he said, but city services have expanded in some areas.

“We didn’t own Walsh Fields three years ago,” he said, adding that watering the fields alone costs $2,500 per year. “People say ‘You’re spending $2,500 of tax money to water the grass so that people can play softball?’ And I say, ‘Yep, because that’s how it’s been done [in past years].'”

With regard to the idea of limiting pay raises for city employees, Slocum said it would only be fair to look to the county and school district to make similar concessions. He noted that more than half of Belfast residents’ tax bills comes from the school district and county – lines that the City Council has no control over. Despite this, he said, many people think the city is responsible for the whole bill, and direct their discontent accordingly.

“There should be a sign, ‘Welcome to City Hall. We’re 30 percent of your tax bill,'” he said. “‘So take a deep breath before you come in.'”

Slocum guessed it would be difficult to orchestrate salary concessions across multiple governmental organizations and numerous labor unions. Contracts begin and end at different times, he said, and historically, the terms of standing contracts have been used to justify raises in the negotiation of new contracts. Still, Slocum said it could be beneficial to have that conversation with the county and school district.

“The question is, can we do some long-range fiscal planning?” he said.

Slocum made a point of saying that the goals of the 2010 budget will come from the Council, not the manager’s office. On Feb. 16, he asked for a clear direction from the Council, offering the same examples as appear above.

Councilor Mike Hurley painted a picture of the towns surrounding Belfast as benefiting from city services without contributing to the tax base. On Slocum’s suggestions, he said, “I went down this list [and said] yes, yes, yes. Any way we can get a nickel from Belmont or Swanville or Waldo … Every single way we can get money for this, we should … If you go to Belmont and look for the park pool, they don’t have one. Not at any price.”

Other members of the Council saw the relationship between the towns as complex enough to warrant a special workshop on the topic, to be held Thursday, Feb. 25.

“I think we’re going to be challenged to hold the line on this budget,” Slocum said. “But if we’re going to do that, we should tell people now, so they can see it coming.”