News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, May 12, 2022
Castine school budget up 14 percent

by David Avery

On Monday, May, 9, both the select board and the school board were present at Emerson Hall to explain the many warrant articles voters will have to decide on during Town Meeting, May 14. More than 20 members of the public attended the 4 p.m. meeting in person.

The school budget is slated to increase by nearly 14 percent, according to summary literature provided by School Union 93 Superintendent Reg Ruhlin. The 2023 fiscal year budget is $1.686 million, as compared to $1.481 million in 2022, an increase of more than $200,000.

The biggest increase comes under the category of regular instruction which is up 15 percent, from $831,000 to $956,000. The category includes most classroom expenses, including teacher salaries and benefits, and a new interventionist position.

The cost of school administration doubles in FY 23 with the addition of a full-time principal, moving from $81,000 to $161,000.

Increases related to transportation, student and staff support, special education and facilities stayed about the same or saw modest increases.

System administration and the school lunch program are budgeted to be less in FY 23 than they were in FY 22.

Superintendent Reg Ruhlin provided a comparison of Castine to Brooksville and Penobscot schools. The latter two towns serve more students, 96 and 100, respectively, compared to Castine’s 75. The numbers include high school students.

Their FY 23 budgets are higher, too, $2.135 million for Brooksville and $2.015 million for Penobscot.

Penobscot is set to employ 12 teachers and 12 support staff; Brooksville, 13 and 10; and Castine 12 and 7 in FY23, according to Ruhlin’s figures.

The budget figures above do not include the FY 23 increase in high school tuition requested by George Stevens Academy. That figure is a $1,700 increase per student.

Ruhlin’s figures reflect last year’s per student expenditure. The GSA tuition issue is a separate warrant article to be voted on at Town Meeting and requests $34,000, which is the extra $1,700 per high school student.

Municipal articles

After 30 minutes on the school warrant, the focus of the meeting switched to the municipal warrant articles facing voters May 14. Select board chair Peter Vogell opened the session by outlining “three big issues here.”

The first is legal expenses. Lawyers are required for everything the town does, he explained. According to the warrant, the town spent about $4,000 on legal expenses in fiscal year 2021. The FY 23 budget calls for $30,000.

The second issue Vogell identified was adding half a person to the town crew, Currently, the town has 1.5 full-time equivalent employees in public works. The warrant asks voters to increase the number to two.

The last big issue is sidewalks, he said. Warrant Articles 58 and 59 ask voters how they wish to deal with snow-covered sidewalks. Approval of Article 58 would make the select board aware that a majority in the town approve of making property owners responsible for removing snow from sidewalks abutting their properties.

Approval of Article 59 would allow the town to purchase equipment to have the town crew remove snow. Two full-time town employees would be required for this option, according to Town Manager Shawn Blodgett. It would also force a small increase in the property tax rate, according to town Finance Officer Karen Motycka.

Saying no to both Articles 58 and 59 would leave the status quo in place. Currently, snow is not removed in any systematic fashion from any sidewalks in town.

It is unclear where approving both Articles 58 and 59 would lead.

As has proven to be the case in the past, there were plenty of questions on sidewalks and snow removal.

When asked if the draft version of the amended town traffic ordinance that is related to sidewalks is what voters would be approving, Motycka said no, that is not what is on the ballot.

That draft ordinance spelled out specific streets where property owners would be required to remove snow and also the fines for failing to do so.

The select board has opted to tread more lightly on sidewalks, Motycka said. The ballot merely asks the town if it wants to solve the issue through an amended traffic ordinance that requires property owners to be responsible for snow removal. Details would be worked out in the future by the board if it is approved, she said.

Another important issue up for approval is the amended version of the town solid waste ordinance, according to Blodgett. The previous version dates from 1993 and reflects practices that no longer apply to Castine, he said. Castine, for example, no longer operates a landfill.

By the numbers

Motycka led the audience through much of the warrant, explaining the numbers as she went. She also did so on page 11 of the town report, where she estimated the effect of approving the proposed FY 23 budget on the tax bill of a typical Castine property owner.

Motycka estimates that if the town and school budgets are adopted as written, but excluding those articles which might affect the mill rate directly, such as 16 and 59, a homeowner might see an increase of 13 percent over 2017 in his or her tax bill, or about 2.6 percent per year.

The public works budget is up in FY 23. Blodgett explained that there are several infrastructure issues that need to be addressed, like getting water, some plumbing and a bathroom installed at the public works garage near the transfer station.

There are also separate warrant articles concerning “Lake Perkins,” Blodgett said, referring to the drainage problems near Pleasant, Perkins and Water streets. One article asks voters to use ARPA funds toward this infrastructure project. American Rescue Plan Act funds were awarded to states and towns by the federal government as part of COVID-19 relief. Voters must approve their expenditure.

Article 57 asks voters for $198,000 more to complete the fix to the “Lake Perkins” drainage problems. The project has ballooned, from an estimated $160,000 to $318,000, for a variety of reasons, according to Blodgett.

Article 58 concerns leasing the lighthouse as a residence. Blodgett said several parties have expressed interest in leasing the lighthouse when the current lease expires in June. He said that year-round residency would be required of the lessee.

Article 62 transfers the property to the UU church until it ceases to be used for that purpose. If that were to happen, ownership of the property would revert back to the town.

The current school board, or school committee, has three members. Article 63 asks voters to increase the board to five members. The question was put on the warrant as a result of a petition drive spearheaded by Jessica Simmons, wife of board chair Jacob Simmons. Other towns in School Union 93 have five-member boards.

Finally, because the state bureau that oversees alcoholic beverages is cleaning up their records, the town warrant contains articles asking Castine voters to approve liquor sales in their town, including beer and wine, according to Town Clerk Susan Macomber. The bureau wants a vote on record for each municipality, Macomber explained.

Currently, liquor sales are legal in Castine, including on Sundays.

Town Meeting takes place Saturday, May 14, at 8:30 a.m. in the Alexander Field House at Maine Maritime Academy.