Wednesday, March 12, 2014
AUGUSTA -- City councilors want to meet public safety needs, improve communication with the public and explore ways to address social service problems, such as hunger and homelessness.
Staff file photo by Andy Molloy
But the city probably won't have much money to work on those or other issues identified at a City Council retreat Saturday, to determine priorities for 2013.
The councilors heard department reports and identified some areas of focus for the coming year, including both big-picture concerns and specific actions to take. Those ideas will inform the creation of a list of goals at a future meeting.
Before doing any of that, however, the councilors and department heads heard from City Manager William Bridgeo about the challenges presented by Gov. Paul LePage's proposed state budget.
The budget would suspend revenue sharing payments from the state to municipalities for two years and require municipalities to hand over revenue from excise taxes on tractor-trailer trucks. It would take more than a 7 percent property tax increase to make up the $1.8 million loss to Augusta from those two changes, Bridgeo said.
Even if the city does not raise taxes, many property owners would pay hundreds more in property taxes under LePage's proposal to eliminate the homestead exemption for homeowners under 65 years old and the circuit-breaker tax refund program.
Augusta property owners also could face a tax increase from the School Department, which interim Superintendent James Anastasio said could lose $500,000 in state funding.
City and school officials must prepare their budgets before the state budget is likely to be finalized. Bridgeo said in an interview that city leaders must decide how to balance the conflicting desires of preserving services and keeping taxes low.
"The dilemma is what do the people of Augusta want?" Bridgeo said. "And it's the job of the mayor and the elected members of council to interpret what they want and what the priorities should be."
The area of focus identified by the most councilors on Saturday was economic development.
"Instead of cutting our way out of this stuff, maybe we could focus on growing a little, too," Ward 4 Councilor Mark O'Brien said.
More specifically, councilors said they want to work on several areas for potential development on the east side of the city, such as the soon-to-be-former MaineGeneral Medical Center, the Cony flatiron building and the Kennebec Arsenal.
At-Large Councilor Dave Rollins suggested starting a revolving loan fund to make it easier for property owners in downtown, and perhaps beyond, to improve their properties.
At-Large Councilor Jeff Bilodeau said Augusta should form an ad hoc committee to make sure city leaders stay informed and involved with efforts by two competing companies to bring a natural gas pipeline to the region. Bilodeau said the pipeline is a major economic development issue that could affect every business and resident in the city.
Quality of life was also a major focus of the council retreat, and some councilors connected it to public safety.
Police Chief Robert Gregoire presented figures showing that among nine of Maine's largest cities, Augusta has the highest rate of serious crimes including rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
Gregoire said he doesn't know why that is, but several of the other cities have fewer residents per police officer. Gregoire said he does not have the personnel to provide community-based programs, such as having a school resource officer, or create a K-9 program.
"We're a very reactive department," he said. "We have very little opportunity to be proactive."
Fire Chief Roger Audette also asked for more personnel, including a full-time life safety inspector to check buildings for fire code violations and general conditions and access. Audette also hopes the city will secure land in north Augusta this year and get an estimate and design cost for a new fire station.
Councilors including At-Large Councilor Dan Emery said they might be interested in making investments in public safety.
Finally, councilors including Emery, Ward 1 Councilor Michael Byron and Ward 2 Councilor Darek Grant said they want the city to give more attention to the poor and vulnerable in Augusta, including hungry and homeless schoolchildren and clients of the Augusta Community Warming Center.
They did not make any suggestions but said they'd like to learn more about the services available to people who are struggling and for city officials to be part of a discussion about solutions.
Susan McMillan -- 621-5645
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Staff file photo by Andy Molloy