Majority does not support lowering taxes
At their April 19 meeting, Vassalboro Budget Committee were faced with a proposed 2022-23 budget, including municipal and school requests and an estimated Kennebec County tax, which (if approved by voters) would be expected to result in a slight decrease in the town tax rate.
The current rate is 14.48 mils ($14.48 for each $1,000 of property valuation). Town Manager Mary Sabins’ preliminary calculation showed that because of increased revenues from other sources, Vassalboro’s $7 million budget could be covered if the tax rate were reduced to 13.93 mils.
The manager reminded budget committee members that the Kennebec County assessment hadn’t been received. And, she said, the final tax rate depends on the town assessor’s property valuations.
Budget committee members were pleased with the news, but a majority did not support lowering the tax rate. Instead, they approved Peggy Shaffer’s motion to endorse the budget, to leave the tax rate at 14.48 mils and to add the difference (around $156,000) to a capital reserve account.
The majority argument was that, given present economic uncertainties, setting aside extra money would cover a variety of possible contingencies. State and federal funding might be cut, or paving costs might increase more than anticipated, for example. Several said they would rather keep taxes level for 2022-23 than lower them and then have to raise them again, maybe substantially, for 2023-24.
William Browne objected, fearing the extra capital reserves could become “a slush fund.”
Some committee members expressed reservations about the proposed municipal expenditures they discussed at their March 31 meeting (see The Town Line, April 7, p. 3). The increased library budget (see The Town Line, March 24, p. 3), money to develop a small park by Outlet Stream and Road Foreman Gene Field’s requested roadside mower were all briefly re-discussed.
Library representatives had asked for time to speak again about their plans, committee Chairman Rick Denico, Jr., said. A majority of committee members saw no need for another presentation.
Most of the April 19 meeting was spent reviewing the proposed 2022-23 school budget with school board members, Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer and resident Paula Gravelle. Gravelle is the Maine Department of Education administrator in charge of calculating the Essential Programs and Services funding model, which determines each school department’s annual state funding. A document called an ED 279 report then tells each superintendent how much state aid to expect.
Gravelle explained that the basis for each school’s state subsidy is based on enrollment (as of Oct. 1 each year), staffing and finances. A complicated formula tells her how to use this information to make sure each school gets its fair share.
The number of applicants for free and reduced-price lunches, determined by parents who fill out a form every fall, has been an important financial input, Gravelle said. But since all lunches became free during the pandemic, few people fill out the forms. The department has been improvising, using three-year averages, and staff are considering an alternative method to evaluate financial conditions.
Gravelle told Browne each school’s allocation is calculated near the beginning of the calendar year. When Browne asked why the budget committee had not received the 2022-23 school budget request until April, Pfeiffer accepted responsibility, saying his time had gone to staffing issues at Vassalboro Community School (see The Town Line, April 21, p. 11).
Budget committee and school board members discussed a variety of budget-related issues, especially salaries and building maintenance needs. Pfeiffer said contract negotiations with several employee groups will start soon. Currently, he said Vassalboro’s educational technicians’ pay is “at the low end” of the area pay range; bus drivers’ and custodians’ compensation is comparable to pay in neighboring school units.
School Board Chairman Kevin Levasseur said as the 1992 school building ages, maintenance needs increase. Pandemic funding has helped with projects like converting the unused industrial arts area into a pre-kindergarten space, he added.
Pfeiffer said Vassalboro has received $1.7 million in extra pandemic funds. Spending the money has been “very restricted” by federal guidelines and timetables, he said. The school department had three months to spend the first installment; it was used for new buses.
“Our bus drivers have been really awesome,” the superintendent added. He praised them for staying on the job and for delivering meals to students’ homes while the building was closed.
Some federal funds have provided additional staff, teachers and a part-time custodian (because of new sanitization requirements). These positions will not become a town responsibility when federal money goes away, Pfeiffer said; it is clearly understood that they are temporary.
Levasseur is not running for re-election to the school board this year, after serving for 21 years. Other residents thanked him for his long service.
Budget committee members unanimously supported the school budget. It will go to select board members at their Thursday, April 28, meeting, with the budget committee’s recommendation, in the form of warrant articles for the annual town meeting. Select board members are scheduled to sign the town meeting warrant that evening.
Voters will make the final decisions on the 2022-23 budget at the open part of the annual town meeting, scheduled for June 6 at 6:30 p.m. at Vassalboro Community School.
Budget committee members are elected at the open meeting. Those whose two-year terms end this year, according to the town website, are Denico, Richard Bradstreet, Douglas Phillips, Mike Poulin and Frank Richards.
The school budget approved June 6 will appear on the June 14 written ballot, where voters will re-approve or reject it. Local elections for select board and school board are also on June 14. June 14 voting will be at the town office from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
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