ELLSWORTH — City officials and council members met over recent weeks to zero in on a final municipal budget for fiscal year 2022 and continued to crunch numbers during a workshop on May 27. Councilors revisited budgets for the library, roads, capital projects and monetary requests from nonprofits. As the workshop wound to a close, City Manager Glenn Moshier said the mill rate would show a slight decrease for a projected municipal budget of around $14 million.
While the projected tax rate may drop, the budget is up slightly. The roughly 2 percent increase, or $340,000, was laid at the feet of contractual salary raises, benefits and capital projects. Final budget numbers will be set by June 20, when the council will vote on whether to approve it.
“It’s a pretty good budget, a fair budget, and one that will move some projects forward,” Council Chairman Dale Hamilton said.
Moshier then told councilors that City Assessor Larry Gardner may need to raise property valuations by roughly 5 percent, to keep in line with the “recent but prolonged” surge in the residential housing market.
“Which is basically going to raise everyone’s taxes no matter what we do,” Councilor Michelle Kaplan noted.
Talks on a reassessment are preliminary, Moshier said, but based on current projections, the market shows no signs of a slowdown. Assessments should be about 93 percent accurate to the market price, and the assessment is audited yearly.
“If [Gardner] doesn’t make adjustments accordingly, then he’s going to get hammered from the other side,” Moshier said.
Hamilton noted that increased new housing construction will lower the mill rate because of “more people paying in. “
“It’s a big picture, but we’re not going to have the complete forecast,” he said.
In addition, to help finance Water Department projects on Surry Road and at the treatment plant, the city floated asking the Public Utilities Commission to approve a 25 percent rate increase.
The library budget, subject to prolonged discussions over two council workshops, will receive the same funding from the city as last year, which was $100,000 less than requested. To compensate last budget season, the library used its fund surplus and will do the same this year to the tune of $60,000. The library achieved savings from leaving a full-time position unfilled and other pandemic-related reasons, Library Director Amy Wisehart said. The library is left with a $23,000 shortfall, and Wisehart said that could mean less staff coverage, open hours and programming. Councilors Kaplan and Gene Lyons were in favor of adding $25,000 to the city appropriation, but the remaining councilors declined, with Hamilton noting local businesses had cut positions in 2020.
“We have a responsibility to the taxpayers to manage the city’s finances the same way,” Hamilton said.
At the heart of the issue is the fact that only 34 percent of library cardholders are Ellsworth residents, and neighboring towns have not fully embraced contributing from their own municipal budgets.
Public safety budgets remained as presented by the department heads. The $1,486,336 police budget is down about $13,000, largely from Moshier acting as police chief in addition to his city manager duties, while the Fire Department budget of $1,400,817 is up about $85,000, an increase largely from interim Chief Gary Saunders’ retirement payout of unused benefits.
Charitable contributions to nonprofits will remain the same as last year, councilors decided after a lengthy discussion, with the exception of Heart of Ellsworth, which requested no funding last year and $5,000 this year. It will receive $2,500, despite Councilor Marc Blanchette’s complaint that the community nonprofit replicates the Chamber of Commerce.
“To me, there’s a lot more meaty organizations in here,” he said.
Local food pantry Loaves and Fishes will receive $5,000, not the $3,000 requested, with Hamilton noting a spike in local food insecurity. And Councilor Robert Miller stepped in for The Grand, restoring its $8,000 request for educational programs that councilors had originally cut.
“[Director Nick Turner] does a lot with kids and educational programs. There’s no way we should not give him any money for that … I think he can use it wisely,” Miller said, and the council agreed.
The $3,000 allocated for summer concerts will remain, despite no summer concerts scheduled. Instead, the funds will go to a summertime community celebration, at Hamilton’s suggestion.The council approved the school budget last month, and a budget validation vote over the $23.6 million budget will be held on June 8.