AUGUSTA — The mayors of 10 major Maine cities, including Augusta and Waterville, have formed a coalition to push back against what they see as a continuing shift of the costs to municipalities and taxpayers.

The group, Mayors Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development, includes mayors from Auburn, Augusta, Bangor, Biddeford, Lewiston, Portland, Saco, South Portland, Waterville and Westbrook. Its first targets are changes to the state General Assistance program proposed by Gov. Paul LePage.

During a press conference Thursday at the State House, the mayors said the proposed changes would shift more of the cost of caring for the state’s most vulnerable population to municipalities, which have only two major ways to deal with those increased financial burdens: cut services or increase property taxes.

“These service-center cities are the economic development drivers in this state,” said Waterville Mayor Karen Heck. “But this war on poor people, with the state shifting expenses, is causing property owners to take their money out of economic development and put it into supporting poor people in our communities. The number of poor people is increasing in this state, and we’re not going to let them just live on the street.”

Heck said LePage, Waterville’s former mayor, should know cities have already made major painful cuts and increased efficiency in local government. Heck said LePage used up much of the Waterville’s surplus in his last two years as mayor to continue to provide services without raising taxes, so those surplus funds are no longer available.

Augusta Mayor William Stokes said Augusta received $700,000 less than anticipated in state education funding this year, and has been getting less and less money back from the state revenue sharing program every year. As revenues have decreased, he said the city has slashed its budget over the last three years from $24 million to $22 million, cutting some 27 city jobs, and having several shutdown days a year.

“The idea we’re somehow squandering or wasting our neighbors’ money is quite insulting,” Stokes said. “This isn’t the first year we’ve seen a raid (by the state) on revenue-sharing; it has been going on for a while. We’re taking a significant loss in state revenue sharing. And these 10 communities generated a lot of that revenue. That has an impact on the ability of municipalities to function as job-creators.”

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said proposed changes to the state General Assistance program — lowering the state reimbursement from 90 percent to 50 percent and imposing a cap — combined with MaineCare cuts, will leave thousands of people without health insurance in Portland alone, and leave hundreds of people in the city homeless.

He said one proposed General Assistance change, decreasing state reimbursement to some municipalities from 90 percent to 50 percent, would shift $2.2 million in costs to Portland property taxpayers.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Thursday that the administration understood the concerns of the mayors group, but has no choice.

“We’ve created a welfare system that has become unaffordable here in Maine and what we are proposing to do is return the local welfare system to its original intent,” Bennett said. “We understand everyone’s facing financially challenging times.”

Much of the pinch has come now that federal stimulus money has run out that used to help pay for General Assistance, Bennett said. That’s created a ripple effect down to the state and municipal government level, she said.

Bennett said the administration is also concerned about homelessness and “we must address the need for low-income housing in Maine, but appropriately outside the local welfare system.”

The mayors said in a prepared statement the purpose of the new group is to “advocate for state policies that will grow Maine’s economy statewide by providing the infrastructure, skilled workforce, and reasonable tax rates necessary to support such growth.”

Brennan said the group, which represents municipalities with a combined population of more than 250,000 residents, would advocate in the legislative process and hoped to sit down with members of the LePage administration to discuss alternatives to the proposed General Assistance changes.

Bennett said Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew has already started to speak with coalition members and “we are looking to collaborate with these city officials.”

In the coming weeks, coalition members said they will also advocate for a state bond package to make investments in economic development, downtown revitalization, and transportation infrastructure.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]