City officials grill school counterparts about taxes

Council suggests school funding based on students, not valuation
By Ethan Andrews | Feb 17, 2017

Belfast — The City Council on Feb. 7 delivered a message to Regional School Unit 71 representatives about their upcoming budget: Think about taxes.

Additionally, the council proposed changing the local piece of the school funding formula to reflect not only property values but the number of pupils attending public schools from each town.

Education accounts for about 60 percent of a property owner's tax bill in Belfast, and more in smaller towns that have fewer municipal services. The city budget, by contrast, accounts for about 30 percent.

City Manager Joe Slocum said Belfast, with its higher property valuation, is hit harder than surrounding towns under the current system, and the city is unable to soften the blow for taxpayers by cutting services.

Slocum said he regularly hears from business owners that they can't afford the rising property taxes in the city. While Belfast also sends more children to public schools than any of the surrounding towns, he said, many taxpayers believe the city is still paying more than its fair share.

Slocum went on to speculate that families with school-age children may be settling increasingly in surrounding towns, shifting the per-pupil cost of education further toward Belfast. He asked the school representatives to provide statistics to the city showing the number of students from each town in each grade over several years to learn if such a trend is in fact happening.

This idea of a migration to outlying towns was echoed by Councilor Mary Mortier, who said in her work as a real estate agent the first question from prospective buyers is always about taxes.

"Most of the people I'm dealing with in the past few years are not looking at Belfast," she said. "They're looking outside Belfast because of the taxes."

Councilor Neal Harkness said residents don't necessarily oppose taxes as much as "unfair taxes." The perceptions among citizens in Belfast, he said, is that the city gets taken advantage of. "That because we have all this valuation, we are in fact subsidizing other towns."

Four of Belfast's five representatives to RSU 71 attended the council meeting, along with Superintendent Paul Knowles. Board Chairman David Crabiel explained to the council that much of the district's tax assessment is set by the state through its minimum mil rate, calculated each year based largely on property values. The board, he said, controls only a small part of the budget.

Crabiel added that voters have the final say, and they haven't been afraid to push back. RSU 71's inaugural budget in 2015 was rejected by voters. The board responded, Crabiel said, by making cuts that lowered the original 9-percent tax increase to 2.25 percent. Last year, he added, the budget went up just half a percent.

That's a change from past years, particularly during the consolidation years when Belfast was part of the nine-town RSU 20. Crabiel suggested that the council might be confusing the new board with its predecessors.

Of the $1 million tax increase in Belfast over the last two years, he said, just a quarter has come from the school district, while the rest came from increases in the city's own budget.

"I don't begrudge any of you, because I watched every bit of your meetings and I understand how hard you worked on that," Crabiel said. "But don't penalize us for all the past school board budgets."

The withdrawal agreement approved by RSU 71 towns prohibits changes to the property value-based local funding formula for three years, meaning the changes proposed by the council could nor be adopted until the district's 2018-19 budget.

Crabiel said the best way for concerned citizens to affect the school budget is to be involved. "Vote," he said. "Go speak at a board meeting. Talk to a board member. There's a lot of ways that people can get attention. This board listens; it really does."

RSU 71 also recently began taping its board meetings. Watch them here.

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