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City proposes modest budget increase because of coronavirus

By Kendra Caruso | May 19, 2020
Source: File photo

Belfast — City Manager Erin Herbig is proposing a budget increase of 0.32% for fiscal year 2020/21. She released the first public draft of the budget last week after weighing departmental requests, city needs and an anticipated decrease of $636,164 in non-property-tax revenue because of the coronavirus.

The city manager's budget proposal totals $10,435,782, an increase of $33,810 from last year’s council-approved budget of $10,401,972.

In her May 7 budget message to City Council and residents, Herbig said cuts were made across all city departments that amounted to $957,956 less than their initial proposals early in March. She said this year’s budget was at “near-apocalypse level,” and that it was difficult to write because so little is known about how the city’s economy will rebound from the coronavirus shutdown.

Herbig wrote that she had "combed through these lines dozens of times since beginning this job" with her budget team and city department heads.

"We’ve identified where we can cut and where we realistically must increase," she said. "...This can be done, without laying off any of our current staff, but it will be difficult for the city of Belfast, our residents and our businesses."

The net of the proposed cuts, combined with projected decreases in revenues, would require a mil rate increase to 23.4 from 22.9, or $0.50 per thousand of assessed valuation for the 48% portion of the property tax bill that covers the city budget. This does not reflect the portions of property taxes collected for schools and county services, which account for the other 52% of the property tax bill.

Mayor Eric Sanders said in an email that the budget was “bare bones” and that there are likely to be adjustments to it, but nothing significant. He thanked Herbig and City Treasurer Theresa Butler for their work in drafting the document.

Non-property-tax revenue is projected to decrease by 12.5% compared to last year, and by 16.6% compared to what was originally projected this year, because of the coronavirus, Herbig said. Budget increases stem mostly from legal fees, health insurance and debt from the new Public Works building, she said.

The county tax bill increased this year by 0.51%, but the city's share of the school budget decreased by 1.6%, according to Herbig. The city saved $31,000 in electricity because of its Crocker Road solar panels, and is saving $4,900 on heating from contracting a set rate for number 2 heating oil, she said.

“I know our community is resilient and we will come out better than before on the other side," Herbig said. "I know we can and will get through this together.”

Despite what is unknown about the coronavirus and how it could continue to negatively affect the community, Sanders voiced optimism that the council will find a way to budget through the virus.

“These are fragile times,” Sanders said in an email. “State revenue will be scarce. The Council will adapt. What is very relevant to me is the unknown length of this crisis and the Council’s determination. My money is on the Council.”

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