Westbrook proposes $68.1 million city budget

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WESTBROOK- City Administrator Jerre Bryant unveiled the city’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget, calling it a spending plan that attempts to “be responsive to the needs of residents and businesses in Westbrook while keeping our city affordable and livable for everybody.”

The total $68.1 million city budget, which includes municipal, school and county expenditures, is slated to increase, $3.7 million, or 5.7 percent. Taxpayers are expected, at this point, to foot $37.4 million of the total city budget, a $1.7 million, or 4.87 increase over the current year. 

Bryant said city leaders attempted in this budget to maximize non-taxpayer revenue and as a result, the municipal tax need is only proposed to increase by $114,873, or less than 1 percent. That coupled with the school department’s tax request increase of $1.5 million and a $50,000 increase for the county budget, will mean the tax rate will increase $1 per thousand in valuation from $18.88 to $19.88. This would mean the owner of a $300,000 home in the city would pay an additional $300 in property tax.

Bryant said with the demand for municipal and educational services continuing to grow and families and seniors continuing to struggle, the city needs to be more responsive to its reliance on property tax revenue.

“If we want to be responsive to our youth, families and seniors, while keeping our community affordable, we need to identify and maximize our use of alternative funding sources. ” Bryant said at the April 2 council meeting. “We cannot continue to turn to our taxpayers for additional funding support for municipal and educational programs and services. This proposed budget attempts to move our community in that more sustainable direction.”

To that end, two proposals in this budget: the hiring of eight new firefighters/emergency medical technicians and an overhaul of the METRO public transit service to the city, are being funded largely outside of property tax.

Westbrook’s share of METRO’s transit improvements, which includes two new bus routes, new buses and a new bus station on the corner of Mechanic Street and William Clarke Drive and by the Westbrook Community Center, is funded through a transit tax increment financing agreement.

Greg Jordan, general manager of METRO, said the two bus routes that pass through the city are being reworked and two new bus routes are being introduced in August 2018. Jordan said the number of trips along Route 2, which connects Portland to Prides Corner in Westbrook, will be reduced and Route 4, which connects downtown Portland and downtown Westbrook, will be more streamlined. Buses along the route will service the Hamlet housing development on Saco Street, but will no longer be making a stop at Hannaford on William Clarke Drive.

“We are working to stop out entries into parking lots and plazas like this. It is a safety issue. We’d prefer to stay on the road and make stops there,” Jordan said.

One of the new bus routes, the Husky Line, will pass through downtown Westbrook as it connects the University of Southern Maine campuses in Gorham and Portland. The route will also include a stop at the Waterstone development at the old Pike quarry site on Main Street.

The other new route, Route 3, will connect Westbrook and South Portland, a “longstanding request of the council and public,” Jordan said. The line will run from Prides Corner to Westbrook Community Center to Spring Street and eventually the Maine Mall.

The project is being financed through federal grants, local municipal contributions and revenue from a pass program for USM students and staff.

The cost for the firefighting/EMT positions ($467,073) will be offset by  $350,000 in federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant money and a $90,000 reduction in overtime cost. The total three-year $962,000 grant, which the council officially accepted last August, will cover the cost of the positions for the next two years. The grant states, the city picks up 25 percent of the tab in the first two years and 65 percent of the cost in the third year. Turcotte said it is the largest SAFER grant in state history.

Fire Chief Andrew Turcotte said having extra firefighters on duty has reduced overtime costs and the need for mutual aid from other fire departments. It has also helped the department to operate a third ambulance and increased its fire safety/prevention education to the public and fire safety survey/inspections.

“SAFER grants aim to improve our staffing capabilities so we can more effectively respond to emergencies, whether that is a fire or EMT call. Because of that, our response time has been reduced,” he said.

Aside from the firefighter positions and transportation improvements, other large expense increases include health insurance ($363,000 increase), salary cost of living adjustments ($211,000) and information technology upgrades ($160,470). Those expenditure increases are being offset by additional excise taxes, revenue sharing and Homestead Exemption and Business Equipment Tax Exemption.

Monday’s meeting kicks off a busy budget review schedule for city councilors. On Saturday, April 7,  beginning at 9 a.m. the city finance committee, chaired by Anna Turcotte, will review the departmental budgets of assessing, social services, community services, general assistance, police, fire, dispatch/information technology and public services/engineering/streets/refuse/fleet maintenance and cemeteries.

The following Monday (April 9), beginning at 6:30 p.m., the committee will review the budgets of the Walker Memorial Library, planning and code enforcement, mayor’s office/ memberships/legal/economic development and marketing, human resources and city clerk/elections.

On April 12, the city finance committee will review public transportation, school and finance/debt service/revenue budget.

The committee will then convene prior to the council meeting on Monday, April 23 for a final review of departmental budgets before passing it on for council review later that evening.

The first reading of the municipal budget will take place in a special city council session on Monday, April 30 at 7 p.m, with second reading and adoption of the fiscal year 2019 budget a week later on Monday, May 7.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com

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