Budget crunch for Houlton?

Gloria Austin, Special to The County
11 years ago

No one, including Houlton Town Council members, wants to see a raise in taxes, again. But, this year’s preliminary budget isn’t looking too favorable.
Town Manager Eugene Conlogue has made working on the 2013 budget a priority in his first four weeks on the job.
    “I will say to you, I am kind of embarrassed by this budget,” said Conlogue after reviewing line items. “But at the same time, I have given you what I can give you at this point. And, we will come to a final answer down the road. I feel confident we will find some things here we can do differently.”
The town’s preliminary 2013 budget report was presented to the town council on Nov. 13. The budget reflects total revenues and projected property taxes of $9,710,040, which is $484,280 more than the 2012 budget of $9,225,760.
“This is a starting point in the many discussions that will take place before the final Council-approved budget is adopted,” said Conlogue. “I do not anticipate that this budget would ever be adopted the way in which it is presented to you this evening.”
Major projected drivers in the proposed budget include shortages of $100,000 in ambulance revenue; $50,000 in state revenue sharing and another $95,000 in use of TIF funds.
“I’ve tried to be conservative in the revenue area,” explained Conlogue. “I scaled back a number of projected revenue lines. That is in keeping — at the time we were doing all of this — with Nedra’s (Hanson, town treasurer) projections for the rest of the year.”
The TIF accounts have been scaled back dramatically, noted Conlogue, from $130,000 to $35,000.
“The primary reason for that is that I find some of the accounts that were used in the 2012 budget exhausted a number of TIF lines as far as monies available; and, we have to be careful to make sure what we use the TIF monies for are actual eligible costs under the TIF agreements,” Conlogue said.
Looking at the proposed 2013 budget as presented at this time, taxes would be raised 1.25 mills.
“I will say to you, personally, I do not find that to be acceptable,” said Conlogue. “I want you to know that up front. If we had to live with what we have here, that is the ballpark you would be looking at. Of that increase, $357,000 net, almost half of that is increase is in the school budget and County tax.”
SAD 29 increase is a $164,191, with the County tax rising to $7,852. Fifty to 55 percent of the town’s 2013 budget is driven by costs assumed by the town itself.
“If the school comes in with a higher increase than is already projected, that throws these figures off,” explained Conlogue.
“That’s scary,” said Paul Cleary, town chairman. “Scary because they [SAD 29] haven’t started their budget with their shortfalls that they have. We need to ask the school board to hold the line with what they gave us.”
Cleary encouraged open communication, with the town and school working together.
In other business, Conlogue recommended the town to become the Fixed Base Operator at Houlton International Airport.
“Most of the revenues we are going to get are going to come from things other than tax money,” said Conlogue. “Only tax money projected going into the FBO operation is the same amount of money, except for $15, money we are already spending at the airport each year for things like mowing, electricity and some other items.”
Also requested was a $250,000 bond issue to finance the capital items, with the first payment on the bond occurring in 2014. Those improvements are weighted toward the recreational area for improvement to the parking lot and tennis courts at the Gentle Memorial Building; replacing a compressor at the Millar Civic Center and getting a new temperature-control system that will not run a high level of electrical expense; and the crack-filling machine at the public works department.
The town was requested to make a $10,000 contribution to the “Just for Kids” Playground Fund, as well as create a computer account to have money to take care of computer replacement and software upgrades.
With a projected $350,000 tax increase, Conlogue is looking forward to working with the board of budget review and town council to make this year’s coming budget more palatable.
“We can give anyone the mill rate they want,” said Cleary. “With the budget presented [as is], all services are still there and all jobs are still there. The next question is, if we try to get this down to a zero increase, what services do we live without and what jobs do we cut — none of us want to do that.”
Budget review sessions will be held Wednesday, Nov. 28; Monday, Dec. 3; and Wednesday, Dec. 5, with the Board of Budget Review. On Wednesday, Dec. 12, the Board of Budget Review will hold its final evaluation and on Monday, Dec. 17, the Town Council will hold its final review. This schedule is subject to change.
The town manager also reported to the council the amount of money owed by AKTEM has been paid and the union voted to approve the police department’s contract.
The town also accepted the 2013 “Drive Sober, Maine” project grant of $6,300. The HPD will be running OUI enforcement details from December, 2012 to September, 2013.
“There will be 31 details all together,” said Houlton Police Chief Butch Asselin.
The town manger recommended a $10,000 match from the town to help replace the snowmobile bridge on B Stream that was wiped out a couple of years ago. The bridge is a feeder system coming to the North Street businesses. There is already $7,000 available from FEMA and other fund-raising efforts will be held to meet the target.
The annual snowmobile trail maintenance grant may be reduced by 10 percent, which may be a barrier to maintaining trails, noted Conlogue, who believes the Meduxnekeag Ramblers will find a way to bridge that gap and keep the trails open.