City budget could cut jobs

By Stephanie Grinnell | Apr 26, 2019

Belfast — The city manager is warning of possible city job cuts in the coming budget season, while at the same time highlighting council support for a large aquafarm project that could bring economic benefit to the city.

City Manager Joe Slocum said in his budget message dated April 18, “I wanted to express my high confidence that no matter what we face, I believe that we will do it together, fueled by the welcoming and engaging nature of our people. This budget presents some daunting challenges to the city’s elected leaders and from them to the departments and people who serve you every day. ...If the budget message says anything, it says that revenues are very important — crucial, even — to many people’s ability to live or work here.

"The City Council has seen many losses of revenue in the past turn into real factors that can lead to property tax increases in the future. That is why it is no surprise to me that they have shown interest and support for the Nordic Aquafarms project. Every one of them wants to make sure that it will not have harmful environmental impacts. If the project happens, no one should doubt the significant economic revenue and jobs that project could bring the our city. The environment is important. The economy is, too. We need to find a way to serve them both.”

Speaking to budget specifics, Slocum cited lost revenue from several sources that he said “may overwhelm our ability to maintain the number of people that we employ and the level of services that we provide.”

Municipal revenue sharing has dropped a total of $500,000 in recent years, he said, and property tax revenue based on the devaluation of the Bank of America campus has dropped an equal amount. In addition, Medicare no longer reimburses the Ambulance Service for patient trips home from the hospital, resulting in an additional $260,000 per year loss.

“Until this year we received payment for emergency trips to the hospital and also a second payment for the return trip home,” he said. “We are no longer being paid for the return trips home because Medicare does not accept them as being medically necessary and hence not an emergency requiring an ambulance.”

Slocum predicts a decrease in non-property tax revenues of 4.1 percent.

Based on department and nonprofit requests in this year’s budget, Slocum estimated a nearly 6-percent increase.

During a budget meeting April 23, Slocum said he initially considered proposing a new city position — a project manager who could take on a variety of duties from existing employees — but decided against including it in his budget proposal.

"We not only can't afford a new position; we may have to eliminate existing positions," he told councilors.

“When you combine an anticipated net revenue loss of $226,284 and the requested increase in proposed expenses of $578,428 we start with a budget gap of $804,712,” he wrote in his budget message.

If the budget were approved with those numbers, Slocum said, taxpayers would see a 15-percent increase for the city budget, which does not include county or school expenses.

“I do not know a soul who wants to see that kind of increase, especially considering that it is highly unlikely that county taxes and school taxes will stay the same this next year,” he said.

However, he also noted he has “been unable to find a way to reduce the city portion of the property tax bill to something less than a 10-percent increase without cutting city employment positions.”

“Any significant non-employee cuts would push our already strained infrastructure maintenance well below responsible levels," Slocum said. "So do we cut infrastructure or do we cut the services the community expects? Vehicles, salt piles and buildings do not deliver services — people do.”

The city manager notes he will need input from the City Council to shape the budget.

“Together we will have to identify and support the hard choices and decisions that may need to be made,” he said. “ … Every story has at least two sides and the council and city deserve to hear them all.”

Slocum outlined areas of the budget to cut more than $1,000, including a number of vacant and part-time positions and salary cuts in several departments. As well, he suggests cutting aid to social services and for equipment purchases.

To increase revenue, Slocum suggested increasing the garbage bag fee by 50 cents, increasing tonnage fees for construction debris by $10 per ton, increasing the vehicle excise tax and harbor fees as well as expected higher payments of investment interest and cable franchise fees.

With his suggested savings and increased revenue sources, the city increase would still be 8.4 percent, not including any school or county increase. He noted other factors, such as the overlay taxes collected to address tax abatements, as well as an inability to provide cost-of-living increases to city employees who are not part of a union, which would cost the city up to $60,000.

Councilors met for their first budget meeting April 23. Additional budget workshops are scheduled for May 2, 23, 28 and 30. Budget and upcoming meeting information can be found on the city website at cityofbelfast.org.

Comments (3)
Posted by: Eric Schrader | May 18, 2019 09:36

As a student of the Belfast budget, how can the City Manager allow this ambulance reimbursement from Medicare get out of hand? When did he find out that the return trips were not going to be reimbursed? Where is the Mid-Coast Transportation network to provide the rides. How about volunteers? 2 trips per week x 52 weeks = 104 trips to Waldo County hospital? How about the not so free "Belfast Free Library" with a budget of over $ 460K per year with 11 employees. The City Manager states that the City is losing Municipal Revenue sharing, but he never explains WHY? And we know about the devaluation of the Bank of America space, but what is our Economic Development director doing about it? How about all the empty storefronts, Rite Aid, Reny's Plaza and the City thinks it's going to handle a Belfast Yards project? Maybe less time spent on the Airport taxiway and the City website would serve the citizens of Belfast better.



Posted by: Kenneth W Hall | Apr 27, 2019 11:21

How long before Athena asks for an abatement or threatens to move the entire operation to Mass?  Nordic better come, just to replace the Bank of America and all.  The Nordic plan will hopefully prevent taxes from going up, but those who sell it as lowering taxes are misinformed.  The City Manager in this article provides proof of that fact.  If there was a bigger tax base he would be hiring a "Project Manager" and NOT lowering taxes!



Posted by: Kenneth W Hall | Apr 27, 2019 11:14

It's a chicken and egg problem.  The taxes go up, the people move away, and the services are not needed.   Either that or the working class move out of the City to suburbs and the properties become that of the 1%ers

 

It would be very interesting to go back the last two decades to see the number of employees vs tax rates.  Are the City workers producing more or less bang for the buck?  Assistants are GREAT! but so is time management and efficient production.



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