Chair Stone wants ‘zero tax increase’
By Eric Russell
BANGOR, Maine — City councilors drew a hard line Monday by proposing 10 percent across-the-board cuts in the public works and fire department in an effort to offset sharply declining revenue and keep the municipal tax rate stable.
The proposed cuts, totaling nearly $800,000 across the two departments, were suggested by council Chair Richard Stone and won narrow support of a philosophically divided council.
“My goal was to get us down to a zero tax increase,” Stone explained Tuesday. “The five people who voted for it all probably voted for different reasons, but there needs be an urgency of the council to focus our discussions.”
“I’m absolutely confident that the final budget will not look like it did [Monday] night,” said Councilor Cary Weston, who supported the proposal. “These cuts, on the surface, look too big to absorb, but they allow conversations that never would have happened.”
Councilor Gerry Palmer voted with the minority Monday and said he was disappointed in the budget strategy proposed by Stone.
“I think it’s too early to be making these cuts. It’s very hard on departments when you do things like this,” Palmer said. “There’s a better way to solve problems.”
Councilor Hal Wheeler, who didn’t attend Monday’s budget workshops because he was observing Passover, said he nearly fell off his couch when he watched the meeting Tuesday morning.
“This would amputate essential services,” he said.
Monday’s proposed cuts would affect a preliminary budget of $45.4 million unveiled last week by interim City Manager Bob Farrar that already had trimmed about $1.6 million from various departments. Even with those reductions, though, the first look at the budget showed a property tax increase of 80 cents because Bangor projects large losses in local and state revenue.
Areas slated for change include:
• Eliminating the equivalent of 7½ staff positions, which are all vacant.
• Decreasing overtime budgets for the police, fire and public works department by more than $100,000.
• Eliminating the appropriation of $100,000 to the Commission on Cultural Development.
• Increasing BAT bus fares; eliminating the Saturday service of the BAT bus mall-hopper route; eliminating BAT service on six minor holidays.
• Increasing parking ticket fees; boosting fees at municipal pools; assessing credit card fees for City Hall customers.
• Using $150,000 from the city’s arena fund to pay down debts owed by Bass Park.
Farrar said Tuesday that the council’s action from the night before proposing additional budget cuts sends a clear message.
“With cuts of that level, I don’t see how they couldn’t reduce services,” he said.
Fire Chief Jeff Cammack said the $459,000 reduction to his department could close Station 5 and eliminate the dozen or so firefighters that call the station home. The $329,000 cut from public works also would surely involve layoffs.
In addition to the cuts in public works and fire, Stone’s proposal would eliminate $141,000 in funding to the Bangor Public Library, something Wheeler said he plans to fight.
“The Bangor Public Library is consistently cited as being one of our primary and most important assets,” he said.
City councilors are facing a projected $2 million loss in revenue from 2010, or 4.6 percent. Most of the loss represents a reduction in municipal revenue sharing from the state, but Bangor also will lose automobile excise tax and interest income. Additionally, the city is expected to lose roughly $14 million in assessed property value, which will decrease the amount of tax revenue.
The expense side also includes cost-of-living increases for three sets of employees who are represented by unions — the Fire Department, airport ramp attendants and aircraft dispatchers.
Stone stressed Tuesday that the budget discussions will continue for the next two months before the council makes its final vote. He hoped the debate remains civil, but there is a clear divide among councilors about how to pass this year’s budget.
Pat Blanchette said Monday night that councilors can’t keep treating government like a business, as much as they might want to.
“The difference is, in business, you answer to shareholders and in government, you answer to taxpayers,” he said.
The next budget session is scheduled for Monday, April 12.
“I would encourage the public to make their comments known to their councilors,” Palmer said. “There is a lot of talk about pushing the envelope with this budget, but we have to be prepared that sometimes the envelope pushes back.”