ELLSWORTH — After several weeks of public workshops and negotiations, city councilors unanimously approved the city budget with little fanfare at a meeting on Monday evening.
The final budget is up 1.78 percent over last year, with a tentative mill rate of 18.29, meaning a taxpayer in Ellsworth will be asked to pay $18.29 for every $1,000 worth of property he or she owns.
At that rate, a taxpayer with $200,000 worth of assessed value would pay $3,658 in property taxes next year.
The final municipal budget totals $12,894,965, not including the local appropriation for the school, which is $11,393,488. The school budget was approved by voters on Tuesday. Taken together, taxpayers will need to come up with $19,851,538 to fund schools and city operations this fiscal year.
Property taxes, which are due in two separate payments in Ellsworth, will be due Sept. 13 and March 14, 2019. Councilors voted on Monday to raise the interest rate on late tax bills from 5 to 6 percent, the first change in several years.
“We’re dealing with two different parties here,” said Councilor Steve Beathem.
“With people who are struggling to pay the taxes and people who find it’s cheaper to pay the interest to the city.”
Councilors praised the budget for its leanness, particularly in what several characterized as years with little or no growth.
Beathem said the city has seen a decrease in taxable property over the past three years but has still kept the budget in check.
“Last year the state took almost $10 million away from us as taxable property,” said Beathem. “To replace that it takes a lot of money.”
Councilor Gary Fortier said councilors “left no rock unturned” in their quest to trim the budget, adding that most of the additional $52,000 in municipal expenses were staff-related.
“I think it’s a very lean budget,” Fortier said.
Councilors also authorized the borrowing of $2 million in the form of a tax anticipation note from KeyBank. The interest rate on the note is 2.34 percent, the lowest of the five bids that came in.
“It was an aggressive bid,” Fortier said. Interest on the note will amount to $46,415.
Gene Lyons questioned why it was necessary for the city to borrow money.
“I’m kind of wondering why you need to borrow $2 million,” said Lyons, adding “my taxes are high; my valuation on my house is about double what it should be.”
Fortier answered that the city needs the money to cover expenses until taxes are paid in September.
Councilors also voted to amend the city’s procurement policy, which dictates the amount of money a city manager can spend from certain accounts without council approval. The issue came up recently with the purchase of a fire alarm panel, which cost above the $10,000 limit and required an emergency meeting of the council for approval.
“The city manager needs to have the resources to manage day-to-day operations, and I don’t think a $10,000 limit” is enough, said Councilor Dale Hamilton.
Councilor Dawn Hudson disagreed.
“It seems arbitrary if we don’t have a proven history of a need to go higher,” Hudson said. “I think it’s more important to have safeguards there than to pass a rule on an exception.”
Councilors ultimately approved the measure in a unanimous vote, raising the limit to $15,000.
In other news, councilors also voted unanimously to appoint City Manager David Cole (city officials must be appointed yearly) and approve Jenn Madore as finance director. Madore’s current position as deputy finance director will be eliminated once she is promoted, Cole said.
“Jenn took over at a time of great turnover in the Finance Department and she stepped up under very challenging conditions and has seen it through,” Cole said.