Cape residents urged to help shape budget

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As Cape Elizabeth faces an estimated $500,000 budget shortfall next year, town officials are saying it is imperative that they hear more input from residents in the months to come as budget talks heat up.

The Cape Elizabeth School Board and the Town Council will host a public budget forum on Jan. 21 in the Town Hall looking for opinions on what priorities should drive the spending plan for 2010.

“I think this year it’s more important than ever that we hear from residents,” Town Council Chairman James Rowe said. “The way I look at it is we have a lot of experience and expertise in the community, and it would be foolhardy to not listen to what our residents have to offer.”

Cape is facing the shortfall in part because the town is anticipating excise taxes will drop by $170,000 in fiscal year 2010, Town Manager Michael McGovern said.

The town is also facing a $420,000 cut in school subsidies from the state after Gov. John Baldacci in November asked state departments to find nearly $150 million in cuts.

The shortfall also looms because residents do not want to see taxes increased, McGovern said.

“Our outlook for 2010 is not great, but there were few surprises in the news of anticipated decline in revenue from excise tax from automobile registrations and state revenue sharing,” McGovern said. “In fiscal year 2010, non-property tax revenues are estimated to fall $361,000.”

Residents are already forming advocacy groups to help the town with its challenge. Cape for All, for example, formed earlier this month with a goal of providing transparent guidance to town officials. It will not make suggestions, but only support ideas, according to its Web site.

Groups such as Cape for All, while relatively new to Cape Elizabeth, are helpful, Rowe said.

“We’re looking for ideas that we might not be thinking of,” Rowe said. “It’s important to include a public that adds transparency in government and shares its thoughts because we’re not trying to work in a dark, smoke-filled room where the community isn’t included.”

The format of the Jan. 21 forum will be similar to a public hearing. Citizens are invited to voice their ideas for town/school revenue enhancements, their preferences or priorities for service cuts, and their thoughts on the proper level of property taxes.

“We have financial challenges, and it makes sense to get ideas from our residents,” McGovern said.

McGovern said he plans to submit a draft town budget to the council that would have no tax-rate increase. That would, however, leave the town with a projected 3.28 percent reduction in municipal spending.

The town has directed school administrators to keep draft budgets within a 2 percent increase limit. This scenario would mean a tax increase of 4.4 percent for school services, but an overall tax-rate increase of 2.5 percent, assuming flat spending for community services and a reduction in county assessment, McGovern said.

During a Jan. 6 Town Council Finance Committee meeting, scenarios were presented by town officials that showed the town would have to cut spending by 3.28 percent to avoid increasing taxes.

Without tax increases, the school budget would have to be cut by a little less than 1 percent.

The calculations take into account projected revenue decreases of $286,160 in municipal revenue, and $420,000 in state aid to education.

The council and the school board will meet after the forum to further discuss the budget outlook and preparations. That meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28, in the Cape Elizabeth High School cafeteria.

“People are interested more and more where their tax money is going,” Rowe said. “It’s important for them to see the process first hand.”

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