Thursday, December 12, 2013
Property taxes are punishing. For the first time, my Mount Vernon property tax bill tops $5,000. This is getting painful and personal.
It is particularly aggravating to pay $1,800 in taxes on the woodlot I purchased to protect wildlife habitat and that the town placed in a Resource Protection Zone at my request, limiting my ability to harvest wood there. High property taxes make it difficult for landowners to keep their land undeveloped. I sold a house lot a couple years ago myself to stay ahead of the taxes on the woodlot.
Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine Legislature thumbed their noses at property taxpayers this year, loading their financial and problems on our already heavily burdened backs. It's outrageously poor policy, and even poor politics.
Ok, let's take a deep breath and tackle this in a thoughtful, reasonable manner. I guess you can tell I'm a little worked up over this.
Many studies have recognized our property tax problem. The Brookings Institution found that "Maine's often-high costs of government and unbalanced revenue system that supports them hinder the state's ability to promote sustainable prosperity."
Among other problems, Brookings noted Maine's "second-highest property taxes in the nation," reporting "it will be imperative for leaders to address once and for all the tax code's extreme over-reliance on property taxes and its overly narrow sales-tax base."
Independent Sen. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth offered a serious and substantial tax reform bill this year, but the special interests piled on, and that was that. Instead, the governor and Legislature moved strongly in the wrong direction. Here's the dirty laundry list.
* They repealed the circuit breaker program that provided property tax relief for the poorest property owners.
* They pushed the costs of teacher retirements onto local governments and the property tax, a huge tax shift.
* They broke their promises of funding for county jails, leaving local property taxpayers with the unpaid bills and expenses. County commissioners bought a pig in a pokey when they allowed the state to take over county jails, based on promises that the expenses would be paid by the state. Surprise!
* They cut revenue sharing, turning it into revenue nonsharing.
And there's more, but I don't want to completely ruin your morning.
LePage even tried to take away the homestead exemption for Maine homeowners under the age of 65. Legislators understood that this would shift costs from nonresident to resident property taxpayers -- and thankfully rejected the governor's proposal.
Mainers have tried to solve this problem themselves. In 2003 in a statewide referendum, we voted to require the governor and Legislature to pay at least 55 percent of the total cost of public education for kindergarten through grade 12, and 100 percent of the costs of special education services that are mandated by federal or state law.
We also directed that 2 percent of the funds appropriated under this act to a new fund for distribution to schools and municipalities that demonstrate significant savings through collaborative efforts, regionalization or consolidation. We directed another 2 percent for municipalities that saved money by delivering services through regional cooperative efforts.
But they botched the latter directives and ignored the 55 percent requirement. In recent years, that percentage actually has declined. And now, they've stuck us with the expenses of teachers' retirements. Thankfully for them, however, there is no law enforcement agency ready to arrest governors and legislatures who ignore the laws and directives from voters.
We ought to gather in Capitol Park when the Legislature gets back in January to protest high property taxes and poor political performance. But you know the old saying: if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
For us it would be: if we shout at them from Capitol Park, and no one in the Capitol building cares, will we be heard?
I shall go up to the town office this week to pay the first half of my property tax bill. I will smile, visit with the tax collector, be grateful for this wonderful town in which Linda and I live, be pleased with the good and efficient service we receive from town institutions such as the fire department and the transfer station, feel blessed by all the volunteers who really make this town special, feel certain that local kids get a very good education, and leave the office without any complaints or negative thoughts about local government.
Those I shall save for our governor and Legislature.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or email@example.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.