Hermon town councilors have rejected a school budget for the coming year that would have raised spending by nearly 10 percent and caused the town’s tax rate to rise Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Hermon town councilors have rejected a school budget for the coming year that would have raised spending by nearly 10 percent and caused the town’s tax rate to rise.

Councilors on Thursday voted 4-2 against the proposed school budget during a packed meeting in which residents were equally divided over a $1 million increase.

Councilors instead reduced the school budget by $100,000, with $90,000 coming out of the IT department’s budget and $10,000 coming from the budget line for legal fees.

The school budget as proposed would have raised taxes by about $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value, translating into a $300 bump in property taxes on a $200,000 home. Instead, Hermon’s tax rate will remain at about $11.99 per $1,000 assessed valuation unless voters overrule the council at the annual town meeting on June 16.

Council Chair Steven Thomas, along with councilors Ronald Murphy, Phillip Richardson and John Syner, opposed the school budget. Councilors Anthony Reynolds and Stephen Watson supported it. Charles Lever IV was absent.

Residents with children attending Hermon schools, faculty and staff who live in town, and students who aren’t old enough to vote yet expressed support of the school budget, even if it raised taxes. Retirees and others on fixed incomes told the council that they could not afford to pay more for property taxes on top of recent dramatic increases in food, fuel and utilities costs.

“I would be happy to pay more to help this community be a better place,” the Rev. Carl Schreiber of East Orrington Congregational Church — who has lived in Hermon since 1986 and seen his tax bill nearly double in that time, to $3,600 from $1,900 — told the council. “When we give to the students, they come back here as adults and give back to the community tenfold.”

Like Schreiber, Alan Cyr’s children attended Hermon schools and he supports them. But Cyr also said that retirees like him can’t afford a property tax increase when the cost of everything is rising.

“I respectfully ask the town council to reject any budget that increases taxes,” he said. “That would just be another thing we have to worry about paying.”

The Hermon School Committee earlier this month approved a budget of $17.64 million, an increase of 9.65 percent over last year’s budget. That would add teaching positions at Hermon High School as enrollment in the fast-growing town has continued to rise.

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Superintendent Micah Grant told the council on May 5 at a workshop session that without the budget increase, the district would not be able to hire three new teachers at the high school. Without those new positions, he said, the state Department of Education won’t allow the district to increase tuition for towns sending students to the high school from $8,500 per student to the $10,000 it costs to actually educate them.

The budget also includes $573,000 for capital improvement projects to be taken from the district’s reserve account, to pay for a new boiler and auditorium roof at the high school, a new well at the elementary school and the removal of a fuel tank at the middle school.

After that May 5 meeting, Town Manager Howard Kroll learned from the state that Hermon’s total property valuation had risen by $20 million, and the school department found out it was receiving more money from the state than it had expected for transportation due to rising gas prices. After moving money from its reserve account to cover planned capital expenditures, the school district still was short $594,110, Grant said Thursday.

Because the increase in Hermon’s valuation allows the town to raise more in property taxes, Kroll said the town would pull $240,000 from its reserve account and put it toward the school budget. That brought the school budget shortfall down to $354,111 before councilors cut $100,000.

In making the motion to cut the school budget, Murphy suggested that the school board make up the shortfall using money from its $2.8 million reserve account. Grant said that if the district did that each year over the next couple of years, the town would be looking at a much higher tax rate down the road.

The council on Thursday unanimously approved a municipal budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 of $6.86 million, an increase of about $767,000 over 2022. That increase will not affect the tax rate.

Information about the exact wording of articles on the June 16 town meeting warrant concerning the municipal and schools budgets was not available Friday.