BELFAST — The Belfast City Council approved a flat budget at its meeting June 21, and while the millage rate will increase 0.3 mills, the increase is due primarily to school costs related to Regional School Unit 71 increases and increases attributable to Waldo County.

City Manager Erin Herbig gave a brief overview of the budget before a public hearing was held on the matter. Herbig said the total gross budget is $12,159,551 less estimated revenues of $5,788,800, which means the total amount to be raised by the city via property taxes is $6,370,751. The amount appropriated for the 2021-22 budget was $11,505,437 minus revenues of $5,134,686, resulting in the same $6,370,751 figure for taxpayers, or a flat budget.

Herbig said the tax rate increase to taxpayers would be 0.3 mills, which is due to the assessment owed to RSU 71 of $10,693,882 and to Waldo County of $1,631,789. Herbig said the increase in those two assessments amounts to $271,586, which leads to the resulting millage increase. Herbig said the city’s budget is approximately 34% of the total, with the RSU 71 budget constituting 57.2% and the remaining 8.73% for the County of Waldo.

Herbig stressed that the figures are a projection, as the city will be going through a tax commitment later in the summer with the first due date for tax bills being Oct. 1.

In presenting the budget figures, Herbig said that like many businesses across the country, the cost of doing business for the city has increased. She said the city has specifically felt the ongoing national labor shortage, particularly in the city’s emergency response-related positions.

She highlighted several aspects of the budget, including the city’s investments in aging infrastructure, equipment and programs and the city’s staff members. She noted that these investments include increased investments in roads, sidewalks and handicapped accessibility.

During the public hearing portion of the meeting, only one member of the public came to speak about the budget, Waldo Community Action Partners Development Director Marina Kinney, whose organization requested $53,990 under the budget. Kinney said WCAP has provided over $2.1 million in support of Belfast residents and requests only a portion of that overall support to fund its programs.

During the council’s budget discussion, Councilor Neal Harkness spoke about the difficulty of presenting a flat budget with the increased costs to everything, especially wages for employees.

“It costs money to get good people,” Harkness said. “Every single one of these people (city employees) had other options on the table. They came here in part because the city has realized we need to pay people what they are worth.”

He said that even with the rising costs of wages, the city did not raise taxes one cent. He noted that with the rising costs, the city effectively cut its budget to keep it flat. He also said that when the council begins the budget process it starts in a hole, as the school district and county have already weighed in with their budgets, which typically include increases. He called the city’s budget a “miracle” and touted the incredible budget work done by city staff.

Councilor Mike Hurley said that when he thinks about the budget he didn’t want to call it a “work of art,” but did define the budget as “really great.” He also touted the work of city staff in its preparation. Hurley said that in crafting a budget there is a level of service that citizens expect and that the city did the best it could to fill those expectations in the current budget. He also thanked the state of Maine. He said the city went through eight years of budget cuts from the state for both city services and funds for the schools, intoning that was not the case this year.

Councilor Mary Mortier praised the efforts of Herbig and Finance Director Theresa Butler in crafting the budget. She said both of them strategized every aspect of the budget beforehand, resulting in the council being able to reach this final budget. Mortier also applauded city staff, specifically with regard to increasing the city’s surplus funds. She said this was due to two factors: additional state and federal funds in response to COVID-19, and the city staff’s very conservative stance three years prior in terms of forecasting city revenues. She said many towns in Maine suffered by not taking the same conservative approach.

Mortier said she remembered when the city had to borrow money to cover school payments, which the city has not had to do in recent years. She said the city also had years when it deferred maintenance on a number of issues within the city, but that this year the city took a much more balanced approach regarding maintenance.

Councilors Brenda Bonneville and Paul Dean also spent time thanking city staff and their fellow council members for their work on the budget.

Mayor Eric Sanders said that the headline for the story written about the budget is that the city is running a flat budget. He said the council did not have to run a flat budget, but chose to do so. He said the city also presented a flat budget in 2020, while reducing the millage rate 1.3 mills in 2021. Belfast dropped its rate while other communities chose instead to increase spending. He said the council and city staff came in with a more conservative mindset.

He then spoke approvingly of the City Council, several times applauding them for doing what he called a special job. He said the work the council did was incredible and selfless and that they will never get the credit they deserve.

None of the council members spoke regarding the specifics of the budget, but spent their time lauding city staff and the other council members about the job they did on the budget. It should be noted that the council did conduct several budget meetings prior to the meeting last Tuesday where they discussed specific budget line items.

After the discussion, the council voted unanimously, 5-0, to approve the budget.

In other matters before the council:

  • The council voted unanimously to approve a request from Our Town Belfast to install 15 specifically redesigned Adirondack chairs in locations downtown along Main Street between the post office and Front Street. Our Town Belfast Executive Director Amanda Cunningham said the project is part of “Sit Down Belfast” meant to provide more places for people to sit throughout the city.
  • The council voted unanimously to hire Kyle Barton as a wastewater treatment operator for the wastewater department.
  • The council also voted unanimously to hire Lewis Dyer as a part-time police officer. Dyer previously worked in various positions with the Belfast Police Department, but left in May to take a position with the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office. Dyer had voiced an interest in remaining on as part-time officer.
  • The council also unanimously approved several people for positions as volunteers firefighters and as Emergency Medical Service Personnel. The council approved Jackson Winslow to be a paid-per-call firefighter; Robert Banks, Kyle Payson and Kayden Richards for positions with the junior firefighter program; and Cynthia Joseph as an ambulance driver for Belfast Ambulance.
  • The council unanimously approved a request from Harbormaster Katherine Given for an additional $1,285.28 for two 50-foot hoses, which replaced in part both of the city’s over-10-year-old gas and diesel hoses.
  • The council also unanimously approved a request from Norm Poirier with the Belfast Parks and Recreation Department to purchase a zero-turn mower for $4,400.
  • The council also unanimously approved a request from Cemetery Superintendent Leigh Wilcox to sell portion of the old Doak Road fence on a first-come, first-served basis at the cost of $200 per section.
  • The council also spent some time discussing a letter to be sent to state and federal officials regarding gun violence. The letter was approved unanimously.
  • The final item the agenda was a discussion regarding three trees. Councilors decided to prune the tree at 66 Northport Ave., remove the tree at 85 Cedar St. and do a low-cost pruning for the tree at 220 Main St.
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