Caribou City Council will break its charter to delay final budget decision for state funds

3 years ago

CARIBOU, Maine — For the fourth time in five years, Caribou will break the June 30 budget deadline set out in its charter. The city council is hoping that if it waits to set the tax rate for next year, the area’s school district will send some or all of the money it receives from the state’s budget back to taxpayers.

The unanimous decision, made at a June 28 emergency meeting, marks the second time recently that the council has pushed back its annual budget discussions. The city stands to receive up to $238,724, if the Legislature approves the education funding in Gov. Janet Mills’ supplemental budget in full and the school board shares the entirety of Caribou’s portion with the taxpayers. 

At the emergency meeting Monday night, which had been called expressly to vote on the budget, interim town manager Penny Thompson entreated the council to delay, saying that it was unlikely RSU 39 would kick the money back to the city if the mill rate had already been set.

Superintendent Tim Doak said Tuesday that the school board would likely have kept the funds in capital reserves if the council had moved ahead with finalizing the budget. 

“The intent of the City Council, the RSU and the Legislature is good — they want to help taxpayers,” Doak said. “The timelines just aren’t matching up for us, but the intentions are good.”

The city of Caribou has broken its charter more often than not in the past five years, going beyond the “drop dead” June 30 budget deadline in 2017, 2019, 2020 and now 2021. So far, there haven’t been any consequences, and Thompson said someone would have to sue the city for the issue to cause any long-term problems. 

“We’ve done it, just to clarify, [and] we’re not going to go to jail on this?” Mayor Jody Smith asked Thompson. 

“That’s up to interpretation,” Thompson said, drawing a laugh from the council. 

Last week, the Legislature’s budget committee unanimously approved Mills’ proposal to fund public education at 55 percent. The budget bill will likely go before the whole Legislature on Wednesday.

It’s unlikely that the money from the state will change the bottom-line mill rate when it does come, though taxpayers will see a reduction, Thompson said. The school district uses a different calendar than the city, and so only about half of the money would be available for this fiscal year. 

Unless it continues for a much longer time, it’s unlikely that the delay will affect when taxpayers receive their billing. Thompson was unsure where the June 30 deadline came from to begin with.

For now, the charter remains unchanged, though some on the council expressed interest in changing to a more practical deadline. That would require a formal alteration of the charter’s language and a public hearing on the matter. 

The city council will meet again on July 12, when it hopes to put an end to the waiting.