Clinton property tax rate set ‘artificially low’, consultant says

CLINTON – Selectmen voted to set the property tax rate at 1.26%, or $12.60 for every $1,000 of property assessment, the highest possible after residents rejected an article aimed at increasing the tax levy at the June municipal assembly.

Since city officials could not raise more, property tax revenue will not be enough to cover the city’s approved budget, and officials will have to use about $200,000 from unrestricted funds.

The article aimed at increasing the property tax was overwhelmingly rejected in the municipal assembly, with 140 votes for, 259 against and 40 abstentions. The tax rate fell 23% last year following the city’s reassessment.

City Assessing Officer Garnett Robinson told selectors on Tuesday he was concerned about the rate, calling it “artificially low.” He said that if the increase had passed at the town hall, the rate would likely have risen to around 1.35%. But he feared residents would continue to reject future rate increases, or if an increase is approved next year, residents will see their tax bill rise significantly.

Robinson said he had seen other towns in the area where increases had been rejected and that officials could use other undesignated funds to make up the difference for just a few years before serious financial problems arose.

In other cases, elected officials voted to allocate the second installment of US federal bailout law money to purchase a new ambulance for the fire department. The city has about $60,000 set aside for a new ambulance and will now add ARPA’s $177,000 to the reserve account.

The department currently has two ambulances and the money will be used to purchase a replacement ambulance for the old ambulance, Rescue 6. Fire Chief Travis Leary said at an earlier meeting that having a second ambulance allows the department to perform more patient transfers – bringing more revenue to the city – and functions as a backup when an ambulance is down for maintenance.

Leary said he spoke with officials in Newport and Gardiner, where they were able to use ARPA money to purchase an ambulance. Selectmen previously worried about whether this was an acceptable way to use the money.

New ambulances can cost around $300,000, Leary said, so the city now has a significant amount set aside for purchase. If the city were to purchase a brand new ambulance, construction could take 18 to 24 months, Leary said.

The city has used past funds to do work in conjunction with the Clinton Water District, and on Tuesday elected officials voted to use $445,500 in money from an ARPA grant from Kennebec County to fix a water tank . The reservoir serves approximately 400 homes and businesses in Clinton.

The council also approved the employment contract of a new city manager, John Bellino, and accepted the resignation of current manager, Earla Haggerty. Haggerty’s last day as manager – and Bellino’s first – will be Monday, September 5, but she will then work as Bellino’s assistant for two weeks. His salary will be around $65,000.

Throughout the meeting, a number of people thanked Haggerty for his work, and Haggerty thanked the city’s department heads for their contributions over the years.

“What has been accomplished over these four years could not have happened without the leadership of these department heads,” Haggerty said. “It’s been an adventure and I’m happy to pass the baton to (Bellino).”

Haggerty has previously said she is looking forward to her retirement and plans to spend more time reading and with her family.

Selectmen also approved a plan to purchase a recreation shed for Old Mill Park. Anthony Barton, the director of parks and recreation, previously outlined a plan to purchase a 10ft by 30ft shed for the park, which will include storage space for parks and recreation, and space for residents to to borrow leisure equipment.

Council voted to go ahead with Hill View Mini Barns for the shed, which will cost approximately $14,000 and be paid for from the city’s streetscape reserve fund.

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Penny D. Jackson