Bridgton selectmen take five hours to discuss budget

By Lisa Williams Ackley
Staff Writer

The Bridgton Board of Selectmen spent five long hours Monday night going over the proposed municipal budget — at every turn, trying to balance what’s in the best interest of the taxpayers they represent with what is as fair, as fiscally possible, for the employees who serve the entire town.

No easy task, as the $13,161,887 budget, as proposed for 2011-2012, is already $882,000 over the LD 1 limit and represents an overall projected tax rate increase of about $1.20. The property tax rate of Fiscal Year 2011 was $12.20.

LD 1 is the Maine law that imposes spending limits on state General Fund appropriations, municipal and county property tax levies and assessments, as well as school district spending. It limits annual growth in a municipality’s property tax levy to the state’s average annual growth in personal income plus each municipality’s property growth factor. Each municipality has a different property growth factor that measures the value of new development in town. A municipality can exceed the limit, if its legislative body — in this case, voters at the annual town meeting in June — approve exceeding it.

The economy is still on a rough ride — state revenue sharing is continually shrinking, revenues are down, and there doesn’t seem to be much light at the end of a long tunnel.

“It’s a perfect storm for bad conditions, and it’s only getting worse,” Bridgton Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz said Tuesday.

Selectmen Earl Cash, Paul Hoyt, Doug Taft, Arthur Triglione Sr. and Woody Woodward pored over the line items of each account or department listed in the budget March 28, offering their opinions, concerns and ideas, as Town Manager Berkowitz answered questions and offered suggestions, as well.

Bridgton Budget Advisory Committee Chairman Bernie King attended the budget workshop meeting, with the committee’s several recommendations in hand for the selectmen to consider.

Back in January, when the town manager first presented the proposed municipal budget, Berkowitz said it “reflects a sizeable tax rate increase if no further budget actions are taken.”

The five selectmen managed to pare about $125,000 off the $13,167,887 proposed budget — amounting to a tax rate decrease of approximately of 12.5 cents. Every $10,000 in the proposed budget equals one cent on the property tax rate  — up or down.

No easy decisions

Bridgton Community Center  —

One of the first budget items to be considered by selectmen Tuesday evening was the amount of money the town appropriates to the Bridgton Community Center. Historically, the voters have approved $75,000 for the Community Center, which is a non-profit organization.

Chairman Triglione made a motion to cut the $75,000 for the Community Center by 15%, or $11,250, saying his recommendation was “based on the economy and the tax rate.”

“That’s a pretty steep cut,” Town Manager Berkowitz stated.

Ken Murphy, an announced candidate for selectman and a member of the Bridgton Community Center’s Board of Directors, told Triglione and the others, “The Community Center does more for this community than most people realize.”

Directing his next comment to Triglione’s motion to reduce the Community Center’s subsidy from the town by 11.5%, down to $63,750, Murphy said, “That’s not an area where I think you ought to go.”

Chairman Triglione responded, saying, “I’m going to go where I have to go, because I’m sitting here doing the job I need to do.”

Noting that the Community Center has “the opportunity” obtain grants and other sources of funding, Triglione told Murphy, “We have to try to do the best we can for everyone in town.”

Selectman Woodward suggested that the Community Center could look at “non-resident user fees, because we’re asking taxpayers to pay for this and John Q. Taxpayer could say, ‘Why am I paying for someone from out of town?’”

Triglione said the Community Center’s board of directors was, at one time, “very anxious to take over the (Community Center) building from the town,” but that recently Board of Directors Chairman Steve Collins had asked that the selectmen “slow that process down.”

“That’s on one side of the equation, but we could tell them, ‘If you don’t want the building, someone else can have it, because we’re getting rid of buildings,” Triglione stated.

“I would recommend we invite the Community Center Board of Directors to a meeting,” Selectman Woodward said. He suggested the selectmen could ask the Community Center’s Board of Directors to consider taking over the building sooner than originally thought.

In the end, the selectmen concurred that a tentative 10% cut for the Community Center would be better than 15%.

“I think the idea of our meeting in the very near future, Art, is a good idea,” Murphy said.

“It’s a must,” stated Selectman Cash.

The selectmen then decided to ask the Community Center’s board of directors to attend their April 12 meeting.

General Government —

Once again, the selectmen were enmeshed in grim economic reality, as they wrestled with whether or not the town can afford to give any raises or merit increases and wanting to show appreciation to municipal employees, especially those with long years of service.

Berkowitz said the proposed budget included a 1.5% cost of living increase for employees.

“Also, you have (contract) negotiations going on — we’re going to be negotiating April 6.”

“We want to recognize our employees, but also recognize (the state of) the economy,” said Chairman Triglione.

Triglione then said he does not believe the town can afford raises, but suggested, instead, giving employees “a one-time stipend payment across the board based on length of service.” He explained that the town manager had prepared a sheet listing proposed stipends with categories of “high,” “medium,” and “low” and one to five years of service, five to 10 years of service, and so forth, calculated on years of time served, as of July 1.

“A lot of towns aren’t giving anything at all, and I think our employees would understand,” Selectman Woodward said. “We want people to know we appreciate their years of service.”

Other departments

When discussing the Bridgton Police Department Open Shift payments to officers, as well as the Bridgton Fire Department’s call pay, Selectman Paul Hoyt was adamant that better scheduling could save taxpayers a great deal of money, when it comes to the bottom line. The board will speak with incoming Chief of Police Kevin Schofield who will be sworn in to office today, March 31.

Outside agencies

United Ambulance will be looked at more closely, selectmen said, to see if they still require the same amount of money as in the past.

They also discussed the possibility of lowering the $78,000 amount requested for the Bridgton Public Library.

Selectman Hoyt asked his fellow board members, “Why are we talking about possibly cutting (funds for) United Ambulance and the Community Center, but not the Library?”

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