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Superintendent of Schools Matt Nelson

Superintendent of Schools Matt Nelson answers questions from the City Council. Source: WSSR-TV

By Zendelle Bouchard

At a workshop on March 5, 2024, the Sanford City Council heard overviews of the municipal and school budgets. After the presentations, Council members made it clear they are looking for further budget cuts, but disagreed on how low they were prepared to go. The Council will delve deeper into both budgets in additional workshops over the next two weeks.

Municipal Budget

City Manager Steve Buck presented his recommended municipal budget, which calls for a 9.7% increase in appropriations, or almost $3.3 million. 78.3% of the increase comes in wages, benefits and insurance for city staff. Contract services, which includes hauling, solid waste and recycling, represents 12.1% of the increase. Non-contract services, which includes General Assistance, makes up another 7.8% of the increase.

Two new positions are being requested in the municipal budget. The first is a full-time person for the General Assistance office, which Buck said continues to be very busy with new Mainers. The second is the Community Paramedic position for which grant funds are available. Buck is also requesting funding for an Assistant City Manager position in lieu of the Community Development Director position. The Police Department requested an additional Mental Health First Responder, but that request has been cut. Buck said he expects some debate about the position.

The city is also proposing a 16.86% increase in capital expenditures, which include regularly scheduled replacements of Police and Fire Department vehicles, a new roof for the Veterans Memorial Gym, and an increase of $500,000 for roadway infrastructure.

On the revenue side, Buck is projecting a $1.1 million increase, or 6.01%, which includes revenue sharing from the state as well as municipal revenues such as ambulance fees and excise taxes. These numbers will be firmed up after the state legislature finishes its work in a few weeks. City officials are hopeful that the state reimbursement for General Assistance will increase from 70% to 80% or 90%. The municipal budget also proposes to use $1.1 million of the city’s undesignated fund balance, which is in line with the auditor’s recommendations.

As part of the budget, Buck is recommending a $1 increase in the price of a sleeve of Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) trash bags, to help cover the increase in the cost of solid waste hauling and disposal.

School Budget

Superintendent of Schools Matt Nelson presented the School Committee’s recommended budget, which reflects cuts of 30 positions (not 31 as we reported last week). Most of the cuts are in jobs that were funded through federal ESSER funds due to the Covid pandemic. Nelson explained that not all ESSER-funded positions are being cut, since many were needs that existed long before the pandemic. Some of the ESSER positions the School Department is seeking to retain include five social workers, a counselor and nursing assistant at Sanford Middle School, and art and music teachers at Carl J. Lamb School. A new ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) teacher position is being added, because the Department is receiving additional subsidy to pay for it in response to the increased enrollment of those students during the past year.

Operating expenses in the proposed 2024/25 school budget are up 6.36% over the current year’s budget. As is the case with the city’s budget, the increase is largely in wages, benefits and insurance. The Harvard Health Plan that covers most school employees is anticipated to go up by 17.5% this year. Transportation costs, which the School Department has no control over, have also increased significantly.

The revenue side of the school budget is projected to increase by 4.59%, but much of the increase in subsidy is earmarked for special education and ESOL services and can’t be used to reduce taxation. The per-student subsidy from the state for essential programs and services has actually decreased because while Sanford’s overall enrollment is growing, we have more elementary students, which are subsidized at a lower rate than high school students.

The bottom line of the school budget is an 11.1% increase in taxation.

Council Discussion

After the school budget presentation, Councilors asked questions and debated the increase. Councilor Ayn Hanselmann said the 11.1% increase in taxation from the school budget was “unacceptable.” Mayor Becky Brink said she would like to see that number at 9%, or at least under 10%. Hanselmann responded that she would like to see it closer to 7%.

Councilor Bob Stackpole said he would not be in favor of cutting things that would have to be made up for later. He said the budgets were “already stripped down” and expressed concern that further cuts would have too much of a negative impact on the community. Councilor Pete Tranchemontagne agreed and said it would be difficult to get under a 10% increase.

Deputy Mayor Maura Herlihy advocated for a figure between 8 and 9%. She said her senior citizen tenants are struggling to get by, and they need to be considered as well as the children.

Councilor Nate Hitchcock said he wasn’t comfortable choosing a percentage at this point but wanted to see more detailed numbers before making a decision. He said he wants to make sure expenses are reduced as much as possible without “hurting ourselves for the future.”

Next Steps

  • The School Committee will have a budget workshop March 11 at 4:30 pm, before the regular School Committee meeting.
  • The City Council will have an in-depth workshop on the school budget March 12 at 4 pm.
  • On March 19, the Council will have an in-depth workshop on the municipal budget at 4 pm, followed by the regular Council meeting at 6 pm, which will include a public hearing on both budgets.
  • The Council will vote on the budget at its April 2 regular meeting.
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