Bridgton budget presentation marks tough times ahead

By Lisa Williams Ackley
Staff Writer

Bridgton Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz didn’t sugarcoat his message, in his presentation of the proposed municipal budget for 2011-2012, at the selectmen’s meeting Tuesday night.

The proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2012 stands at $13,161,887, or an increase from the Fiscal Year 2011 budget of $231,238 or 1.79%. These figures reflect a projected assessment increase from School Administrative District 61 of $7,795,000, or $183,507 more than in 2011, as well as a projected increase of $15,945 in the Cumberland County assessment.

Like many other communities across Maine and the rest of the country, the Town of Bridgton is faced with receiving less revenue from the state and other sources while needing to address current programs and services for its citizens, as well as still trying to maintain its infrastructure.

The proposed budget exceeds the state-mandated limit known as LD-1 by about $882,000, according to Berkowitz.

Berkowitz said the proposed budget “reflects a sizeable tax rate increase if no further budget actions are taken.”

“However, it also mirrors some of the predictions we have all been aware of over the past two years,” stated Berkowitz.

Revenues down $185,000, expenses up $745,000

Predictions made to the selectmen in fiscal years 2009 and 2010 “are now showing true,” Berkowitz said.

“Expenditures for most municipal operations are still holding well,” said Berkowitz. “However, energy and capital improvements and meeting more of the ‘unmet needs’ are increasing the bottom line while revenues have continued to decline.”

The town manager said that, at the time the proposed budget was being developed, “revenues appear to have decreased by almost $185,000 and overall expenses increased by about $745,000.”

“When viewed in the total budget picture (including county and education), this equates to about a $930,000 dollar impact,” Berkowitz stated. “This could translate to an impact in the range of $1.20 more on the overall tax rate when overlay, exemptions and the like are finally computed in June, 2011.” There are several factors that have contributed to this, he said, and “it is due to several sectors and not just the town side of the budget.”

A specific strategy was used in developing the proposed budget, according Berkowitz.

“During the summer of 2010, the Board was introduced to a report called, ‘A Sustainable Tax Rate’,” Berkowitz said. “The purpose of that report was to begin the process of realizing the difficulties Bridgton faces as it moves into future fiscal years, the demands of operational funding and the growing exposure to ‘unmet needs’ in our capital investments. Coupled with slow growth and declining revenues, the simple goal of ‘holding the tax rate to a current year’ was more of a magical effort rather than a practical reality.”

“A challenge that cannot be underestimated”

“As prior year budgets have been submitted,” said Berkowitz, “we have attempted to position the community in such a way to assure that service levels continued while being fiscally prudent. We did so not knowing that in 2009, the world would be immersed in a global recession with severe and protracted impacts. We also have realized that as our state re-balances its budget it does so on the backs of municipalities like Bridgton. General revenue sharing, homestead exemption reimbursements, tree growth and road assistance funds were all being reduced going forward affecting Fiscal Year 2010, Fiscal Year 2011 and now Fiscal Year 2012. The loss of this revenue coupled with a legislatively driven tax cap, creates a challenge that cannot be underestimated. Yet, we have maintained the services that our community continues to rely upon. Unfortunately, our fears about declining revenues, unmet needs and the tax cap are coming true. To meet future needs, communities are turning to reduced services and increased debt to cover costs of capital improvements and investments. They are making structural changes to their government organizations and attempting to minimize reductions. This is in addition to what some are expecting to be the most difficult year ahead with a new governor and legislature. We are also witnessing the increase of the ‘unmet needs’ or increased future liabilities for a community.”

The town manager pointed out the guidelines he gave to town department heads when the budget was initially developed:

• Flat line operational budgets except utilities and energy related increases;

• Minimize Capital Investment requests but identify the “unmet needs”;

• Look at services to determine if they are being impacted and how;

• For the purposes of the budget, a 1.5% COLA is used; and

• Contract negotiations are continuing.

The budget itself was not discussed by the board, as they will do that at their next meeting on Feb. 8.

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