News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, July 17, 2014
Stonington taxes go up; selectmen blame school budget

by Rich Hewitt

It was a group of unhappy selectmen Monday night, July 14, that set the tax rate for this budget year, increasing the rate almost one full point from last year.

The selectmen set the mill rate at 15.1, an increase of about nine-tenths of a mill from 2013. That is the property tax rate the town charges in dollars for each $1,000 of assessed value. Based on the new rate, Selectman Evelyn Duncan figured a property owner with a home valued at $100,000 will see an increase of about $92 in his tax bill.

The increase could have been lower, but also could have been higher. The selectmen set the rate after deciding how much they were willing to draw from the town’s reserves to cover the demands of the municipal and school budgets. Duncan said that after reviewing the town figures, she felt pretty good about where the town stood.

“I went through the numbers and I thought we were doing good until I looked at the school numbers; then everything went to hell,” Duncan said. “Until then, I thought we might be looking at no tax increase.”

The amount the town pays toward education has continued to rise each year, forcing the town to draw more from surplus than the selectmen would like to, according to Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris, who also serves as the town treasurer.

“We have to keep taking money from our reserves for the amount that the budget goes up,” she said. “As the town’s treasurer, that’s something I worry about. We can’t keep doing that every year. There’s less kids up there, but it’s costing us more money.”

The town has always relied on the surplus and has drawn from those funds to ease the impact on taxpayers. The selectmen have generally kept that amount to between $150,000 and $200,000, she said. But last year, they had to draw down that reserve by $275,000, and the town still had to raise taxes.

“There’s a lot of money coming from the town to support education,” Billings- Pezaris said. “If you say anything, you’re anti education. It’s not anti education. This is an exorbitant amount of money we’re offsetting. We can’t bankrupt the town to pay for education.”

This year, the town’s share of the school budget, based on the formula for the Deer Isle-Stonington Community School District, totals $1.9 million, an increase of almost $160,000. To cover that increase, Duncan and Billings-Pezaris presented the selectmen with three scenarios, all based on drawing different amounts from the reserve.

Withdrawing $300,000 from surplus would have resulted in a tax rate of 15.33 mills; at $350,000 from surplus, the tax rate, which they adopted, was 15.1 mills; and taking $400,000 from surplus would have dropped the tax rate to 14.86, still an increase from 2013.

Selectman Richard Larrabee was inclined to go with the highest tax rate, 15.33 mills. That would have resulted in a tax increase of $115 on property valued at $100,000.

“That would let the taxpayers realize that the school is going to dictate their taxes,” he said.

Duncan, however, balked at the high tax rate.

“That’s a lot of money on the people’s back,” she said. “We hit them hard last year; we can’t hit them that hard again.”

The selectmen were puzzled at the large increase in the town’s share of the school budget and noted that, a few weeks ago, before the referendum vote on the school budget, Superintendent Mark Jenkins had indicated that there would be a slight increase.

“This isn’t slight,” said Chris Betts.

Selectman Ben Barrows suggested that if the school board can’t control the budget, which may or may not be the case, it was a political problem that the selectmen should address with the school board. Barrows also said he wanted the school to be a top rate school, adding it was possible to have a premier school system and still be fiscally responsible.

All the grousing was to no avail and the board grudgingly set the tax rate at 15.1. The vote was 4-1 with Barrows opposed, simply to register the concerns the board had raised.