By Paul Koenig
GARDINER — City councilors recently named a former school board member to a vacant council seat, appointed committee positions and discussed the potential impact of Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget.
Richard Heath, also a former member of the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center Board of Directors, was chosen by the councilors for the District 3 seat left empty by Mayor Thomas Harnett’s election. Heath and the other candidate, Helen Tutwiler, gave an overview of their experience, before councilors at a meeting Wednesday asked them questions about their qualifications and thoughts on opportunities to improve the city. Councilors also elected Raymond Morang, safety and training coordinator for E.J. Prescott Inc., to fill the vacant seat on the Gardiner Water District Board of Trustees. After filling the positions on council and the board of trustees, councilors began appointing people to fill open slots in several city committees. They’ll continue the appointments at their next meeting on Feb. 20. City Manager Scott Morelli said there still openings on the audit, housing, ordinance review, recycling and waste water advisory, and technology advisory committees. For more information on any of the openings, visit the city’s website or contact the city clerk’s office at 582-4460. At the council meeting, Morelli also weighed in on LePage’s proposed budget, which includes the suspension of the state's revenue-sharing program for municipalities. Towns and cities have received 5 percent of sales and income tax collected by the state, but in recent years that has been cut down to 3.5 percent by the Legislature. Morelli said lawmakers have raided funding designated for municipalities in order to balance the state budget. “I’ll call it ‘raided’ even though they don’t like that term,” he said, “but I think it’s an appropriate term.” Morelli outlined what would happen if the city cut the approximately $805,000 in lost revenue from the budget or if the city shifted the burden to taxpayers. An across the board cut of 16 percent would be needed to not raise taxes in Gardiner, he said. Or, the city could elect to cut entire departments. Morelli listed options, which included cutting the entire police department or a combination of the fire department and other major departments, to illustrate the magnitude of what the city would be facing if the proposed budget passes. Lawmaker on both sides of the aisle doubt the likelihood of the proposed budget passing with the cuts to municipal revenue sharing, but Morelli said even a small portion of the proposal going through would require significant cuts by the city. If the city passed revenue losses on to taxpayers, the proposed budget, including eliminating the homestead property-tax exemption for non-seniors, would raise taxes by $552 for the median homeowner in Gardiner. Councilor Phil Hart said he is concerned that raising the city’s mil rate past $20 per $1,000 valuation would cause more people to live elsewhere. The rate is currently at $19.90, and raising taxes to cover the governor’s proposed budget would bring it to $22.30. Hart said LePage isn’t solving problems. “All he’s doing is passing the buck to us.” Councilor Robert Logan Johnston said the budget proposal should cause the city to “double-down on efforts to collaborate with other communities.” He said it’s important to find ways for surrounding communities using Gardiner’s services to pay their share. Paul Koenig — 621-5663