City Council passes $20.7M budget; 2.85 percent tax increase expected

ELLSWORTH — After more than a month of workshops, city councilors passed a $20.68-million budget on Monday evening, with one councilor opposed.

“It’s a marginal increase but it’s an increase that continues on,” said Councilor John Phillips, who voted in opposition.

He said the reason why the projected tax rate increase is lower than originally anticipated is because the city will get more from state revenue sharing next year, not because spending was reduced.

“I don’t think we made any cuts to ours to speak of,” Phillips said.

If there are no changes, the mill rate would increase 2.85 percent over this year, to $18.76 per $1,000 of property valuation, up from $18.24. At that rate, a taxpayer with a $200,000 property would pay $3,752 in taxes for fiscal year 2020, $104 more than this year.

Changes to the mill rate are still possible in the coming months, depending on what the Ellsworth School Department receives in subsidy from the state, City Manager David Cole said Monday.

As it stands, the local appropriation for the School Department accounts for roughly 56 percent of the overall $20-million figure. The remainder, $9,016,934, is the net municipal budget.

The mill rate is down from initial projections, which had it at 18.99, due in part to an increase in revenue sharing from the state, which returns a portion of state income and sales taxes to towns each year.

“Our revenue sharing share would be $695,205,” said Cole, “which is a sizable increase over last year’s amount of approximately $452,000.”

The state increased revenue sharing from 2 to 2.5 percent in its biennial budget, which was signed by Governor Janet Mills shortly before Monday evening’s meeting.

Cole noted that the state budget includes an increase in the homestead exemption, which is for Maine residents who have owned a home for more than a year and occupy it as their permanent residence.

The exemption, which previously allowed homeowners to exempt up to $20,000 of a property’s value from tax calculations, has been raised to $25,000.

Several big-ticket capital improvement projects are slated for this year, including a roughly $300,000 project to replace expired fuel tanks at the Harbor Park and Marina as well as $700,000 to repair local roads. The fuel tank replacement will be paid for in part by a $122,000 grant from the Maine Department of Transportation while the rest would come from taxpayers.

In a separate vote to approve funding for the fuel tank project, two councilors, John Phillips and Dawn Hudson, voted against it, arguing that the project would not raise enough money to be worth the funds.

“I think it’s an overpriced project that we’re irresponsible to do,” said Phillips.

Harbormaster Adam Wilson told the council that adding diesel could more than double fuel sales, but Phillips said the math still didn’t work out in favor of replacing the tanks.

But Councilor Gary Fortier pointed out that the existing tanks are noncompliant and that leaving them in place could be a liability for the city.

“We need to get the liability out from the neck of the city,” Fortier said.

“It’s either decommission it or replace it,” said Cole, adding that diesel fuel is “the future in terms of commercial activity.”

Councilor Dale Hamilton, who has called for more long-range planning for capital improvement needs, argued in favor of the increased funding for local roads.

“We have a lot of needs as a city,” Hamilton said. “They can’t just be put off indefinitely … Moving forward we will have some expenses dropping out of the budget, which will allow some of the capital improvements in future years to not drive the mill rate up.”

Hamilton added that “There’s a lot being accomplished in this budget which will significantly improve for the city and the residents at a relatively smaller cost.”

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Southwest Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]
Kate Cough

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