Town Manager Jay Feyler, selectmen and town department heads met with interested members of the public Jan. 12 to talk about factors driving up taxes in Union and what people can do about it.

About 30 people attended the meeting, many of them town employees or volunteers.

Toward the end of the meeting, Feyler called for a straw vote, asking how many in the room would be willing to cut back the number of days per week the town office is open. About a third of those in attendance raised their hands to indicate they would favor that. The town office is open Monday through Friday.

One resident asked after the vote if that action would mean cutting town office workers’ pay. Feyler answered that would be the only way it would save money. The resident then withdrew support for cutting town office hours.

Feyler said during the meeting that was one of the few ways the town could reduce its municipal budget. It is required to maintain roads and plow and pay school and county taxes.

He said the town has cut half an administrative position in the highway department. In addition, he said he had warned town employees that he may not recommend pay increases for them in this year’s budget.

He said he had not discussed that with selectmen, however. He added that the town has great highway employees and many miles of roads to maintain. He said that if pay gets too low for employees, there’s a danger of losing them to other towns or jobs.

At several points in the meeting, Feyler criticized the policies of the state government. Town officials encouraged citizens to contact their legislators and complain about their taxes.

When a resident asked the town manager to give specific examples, he said the state passes its problems down to the local level. He said the state is not funding public schools at 55 percent as they should, passing those costs on to local property tax payers.

He said that if the state got rid of its Dirigo Health program, its budget problem would be gone.

At the beginning of the meeting, Feyler held up a poster breaking down factors he said cause tax increases.

He noted that the municipal budget has decreased since 2008 from $1,788,573 to $1,721,121 for 2010. Meanwhile the school budget has increased for the town from $1,667,584 in 2008 to $1,785,669 in 2010.

The county budget for the town has increased from $232,566 to $248,155, he said. He criticized Knox County for the increase, noting that it had recently paid off what was owed on its jail building, and still increased its budget.

He then turned to the revenue side. Revenue sharing from the state has gone down from $165,000 in 2008 to about $114,000 expected in 2010. This money the state has given to towns from the taxes it collects has decreased for towns across the Midcoast.

Excise tax revenues are down because people are not buying new cars, Feyler said.

In addition, the town used $114,000 from surplus to reduce taxes in 2008. In 2009 it used $100,000 from surplus. In 2010, the town is not budgeting any money from surplus for that purpose.

“A lot of people think it’s a local level problem,” Feyler said. “It’s really the state.”

He said the state has cut funding for schools and unless the schools can cut that amount from their budgets, that will drive up taxes.

“We’re going to try to hold your budget at the town level,” he said. He noted that expenses for the town have increased. Fire hydrant costs have increased. Health care costs are up.

Breaking it down another way, residents learned at the meeting that 66.28 percent of their property taxes go toward education, 7.83 percent go to the county and 25.89 percent go to the town.

Resident Don Hills asked if the town could say no to the county tax bill. Feyler said he believed that would just cause a court battle and add legal fees to the equation.

Townspeople also discussed what the town is paying for 911 service and whether that should be changed. In particular, concerns were raised that towns should be billed based in part on how much they use the service.

Dave Shaub of the budget committee asked if the committee could look at the budget before the selectmen deal with the proposed budget.

Feyler said he had been thinking about having the budget brought back to selectmen after the budget committee went over it. That would allow selectmen to discuss or even re-vote on items where the budget committee disagreed with the selectmen’s decision.

Shaub wanted to see the selectmen and budget committee talk over their ideas about the budget before it was finalized to be sent to the town meeting.

Town officials said at the Jan. 12 meeting that property values in the town were down and foreclosures were up.

Assessors’ Agent Jim Murphy said Union is not seeing the dramatic problems in real estate being seen in California and other parts of the country, but noted that values were down.

Murphy said the town does not need to do a full reassessment now. “We’re trending in the wrong direction,” he said.