Phillips voters reject budget, meeting adjourned after third article

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PHILLIPS – A budget meeting abruptly ended Saturday morning, resulting in more questions than decisions, after residents voted to not exceed a property tax levy limit set by the state.

Town Manager Lynn White, who accepted the position less than two weeks ago, said that he would be meeting with department heads and others to try and figure out a way to keep town services going as the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “We’re going to need to identify our critical needs, and look at what our liabilities are.”

The proposed budget would have been $1.7 million for a fiscal year beginning on July 1 and going to June 30, 2009. That’s counting the town’s $692,000 MSAD 58 school district allotment, which was already approved earlier this month. That is up from the previous full fiscal year’s budget of $1.55 million.

Residents had a wide variety of issues with the budget and way in which it was presented, ranging from the amount of information in the fiscal report, to the availability of that information to how that information was presented. Others thought that the new budget was too high, despite the bulk of the increase being represented by an additional $117,000 in the MSAD 58 allotment, as that school district faces bigger and bigger decreases in state subsidies. The entire budget, if it had passed, would have increased the mill rate from 12.8 to an estimated 16.8.

After an hour of debate, the roughly 75 residents present voted against Article 3, which asks the town to increase the property tax levy limit of $256,076. That number is established through a formula, and the appearance of that article is required by the state’s LD1 law. Similar articles, with different limits, appear on every town meeting warrant. Typically LD1 articles pass with little debate.

Interestingly, the residents of Phillips conducted the vote by a raising of hands. This actually violates the LD1 law which states that the vote must be decided by written ballot.

“If the municipal budget is adopted by town meeting or by referendum,” LD1, part C, subsection 7 reads, “the property tax levy limit may be exceeded by the same process that applies to adoption of the municipal budget except that the vote must be by written ballot on a separate article that specifically identifies the intent to exceed the property tax levy limit.”

After LD1 failed to pass, there ensued a short debate about whether the meeting should continue or not. As $256,076 represents less that a quarter of the proposed municipal budget, selectmen and others successfully pressed for an adjournment. This motion was approved, and the meeting ended.

Former town manager Karen Olivieri noted that not approving the municipal budget would not prevent tax bills from going out on the school budget. Town services funded through the municipal budget include ambulance service, the volunteer fire department, solid waste and recycling services and road maintenance and repair, as well as running the town office itself.

The budget’s supporters had hoped to pass a $150,000 road maintenance article, which would have helped address problems with the town’s infrastructure. Specifically, parts of the Toothaker Pond Road, Reeds Mill Road and Bridge Street are particularly bad. Those plans will now have to be put on hold, as the budget committee and selectmen scramble to somehow develop a new budget. Road maintenance can be somewhat a time sensitive issue, as many paving companies rapidly begin filling up their schedules throughout the summer months.

Olivieri said that she would like to see the selectmen sit down with residents at a public hearing, utilizing the rejected budget to get feedback on each expenditure. After that, the budget committee could take the recommendations and develop a new budget, to be presented at a new budget meeting.

“And,” she said, “it will all have to be done very quickly.”

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