Thursday, December 12, 2013
AT THE BEGINNING of the 126th Legislature, the Maine Municipal Association and its Legislative Policy Committee, composed of 69 members from cities and towns around the state, pounded the table for protection of "core" municipal services.
The core elements are municipal revenue sharing, state funding for education, transportation investments and water-based infrastructure.
This Legislature did not do a good job of protecting the core.
The core is melting down.
Initially, Gov. Paul LePage, a former mayor and city councilor himself, incredibly proposed total elimination of all state revenue sharing to municipalities.
This proposal represented the first break in more than 40 years in the history of revenue sharing and the partnership between our state and cities from two broad-based taxes: income and sales.
Under severe public pressure, the Legislature restored some of the proposed cuts that would have gutted all budgets across the state.
To put a face on this sometimes confusing subject, let's use numbers from our capital city:
Augusta started its budget deliberations hoping that it would receive the same $1.7 million in state tax sharing that was received the previous year.
If the governor had succeeded in taking it all, the city's property taxpayers would have had to make up most of that, even after any possible cuts.
With no state revenue, Augusta's tax increase could have been 9 percent, according to the mayor at last week's council meeting. Common sense finally prevailed, however, and the Legislature restored some revenue, reducing Augusta's loss to more than a half-million dollars, and another $110,000 from the next fiscal year, for a total loss of $635,000.
Confronting a total budget representing a 6.6 percent tax increase for education and city services, the City Council ultimately reduced that by half to 3.4 percent, while just maintaining essential services and education needs. (The workforce already had been cut by 10 percent in recent budgets.)
Even though it was the first significant tax increase in years, residents heaved a collective sigh of relief.
Some cities had double-digit increases. Saco, for example, was more than 18 percent.
The governor has been quoted as stating his belief that our cities and towns are not doing a good job at cutting "fat" from their budgets, and that they could get by without revenue sharing for the next two years.
Augusta's record underscores how unfair that charge is for many Maine cities.
From 1995 to 2013 (18 years), the consumer price index rose 54.6 percent, while Augusta property taxes rose 13.22 percent.
Translation: While inflation increased by 3 percent annually, Augusta property taxes averaged less than a 1 percent increase annually.
There is no good reason to penalize the hard work done on behalf of the taxpayers in many of our cities and towns by stealing revenue sharing from municipal services and education.
The cooperation and trust between state and municipalities in Maine has been shattered.
Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, has introduced a bill to bring the state's 5 percent revenue sharing back fully within two years.
State funding of 55 percent of education is another promise that has never come close to being kept, and it should be.
This story is not over yet. The Legislature is now working to identify another $40 million to balance the state budget on the backs of our municipalities.
All the while, the state recently has received $60 million in revenue in excess of projections and is looking for a way to spend it. I say the state should give it back to where it came from: Augusta and all the other cities and towns in Maine.
Growing the economy is the answer, not by adding more taxes to the state's property owners.
Any newfound revenues should go to revenue sharing, education and infrastructure -- in other words, to protecting the core.
Don Roberts is a former city councilor and vice chairman of the Charter Commission in Augusta. He is a trustee of the Greater Augusta Utility District, and a representative to the Legislative Policy Committee of Maine Municipal Association.