May 5—LEWISTON — The annual school budget validation referendum scheduled for next week will be postponed after the City Council voted down the proposed budget Tuesday night.
Following lengthy debates among councilors over the municipal and school budgets, the City Council approved next year's $50.1 million municipal budget but declined to move ahead with the proposed $95.7 million school spending plan.
Finance Director Heather Hunter said the School Committee will have to reevaluate and resubmit its budget to the council for approval, and the referendum scheduled to take place May 11 will be postponed.
Several councilors said the School Committee had declined to work with city officials on a budget compromise as the city faces a property tax rate of more than $30 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The vote reflected a now-strained relationship between elected officials on the City Council and School Committee.
Mayor Mark Cayer and others on the council said they were openly "mocked" by School Committee comments recently. On Monday, the board declined to reduce the budget.
Those in favor of the school budget as proposed said it had seen unanimous support from the School Committee, and that making significant cuts would impact staffing levels at a time when schools are trying to bounce back from hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The debate over the school budget, which as proposed would add $1.01 to the tax rate, led to a renewed focus on how the city assesses properties, with those in favor of the budget arguing the $30 tax rate mark was an "arbitrary" number.
Councilor Alicia Rea said due to the assessments, the $30 tax rate figure "doesn't really mean a heck of a lot" when making comparisons to other municipalities. For example, in Auburn, where properties are assessed at close to 100%, the tax rate is about $24.
Others, including Cayer, have looked at the $30 rate as a death knell for economic development. Councilor Lee Clement said "perception is reality," despite the assessment. When people see that number, it will be a red flag, he said.
Lewiston has not conducted a full revaluation since 1988, and the city now values homes at about 76% of their full market value. Hunter told officials Tuesday that if Lewiston properties were assessed at "full value," the tax rate would be about $24.35.
A majority of councilors was hoping the see a school tax increase capped at 60 cents, which, combined with the municipal increase of 39 cents, would keep the total increase at roughly $1.
Councilor Luke Jensen said he did not think the School Committee had been communicating "in good faith" with city officials, ignoring a "reasonable" request for cuts.
"I hate to tell the School Committee, but you don't control the tax rate, we do," he said. "'Frustration' is the key word for this. I would like the (committee) to go back and put in the work, instead of making us look like the bad guys."
Rea, who serves as the council's representative on the School Committee, said the committee has been "passionate" about the budget, due to its potential impact on getting students up to speed following a year unlike any before.
Clement said the council "has to look at the people's ability to absorb this kind of tax increase."
School Committee member Kiernan Majerus-Collins, calling into the council meeting, repeated previous comments he had made regarding the council's requests, calling it "clown math."
Majerus-Collins said it was "galling" to hear city officials continually refer to "a phony tax rate."
"You have it in your power to fund a revaluation and bring (the tax rate) to 24 dollars," Majerus-Collins said, adding the tax rate has not been updated since before he was born.
Councilors dug in, however, with Jensen saying the School Committee was warned a year ago — when approving an increased budget — that "we'd be in this position this year."
"If people have to be fired, that's on the School Committee," he said.
The vote failed 5-2, with Councilors Khalid and Rea voting in favor.
The School Committee is scheduled to hold a special meeting Wednesday.