National pollsters say that there is a “crisis of confidence” in America, and that lots of people have lost faith in their institutions. One of those institutions is the federal government, since very little seems to get done in Washington these days. Local government, on the other hand, does not suffer the same bad reputation. Although there are a few squabbles about taxes now and then, the results of our hardworking municipal officials are visible.
I fear that local government’s reputation will change if the debate over revenue sharing at the State House is not resolved in favor of our cities and towns. The state budget calls for a $40 million cut in the monies to be sent to municipalities. Some legislators are trying to restore that money to the state budget. A final decision will be made soon. Let’s hope they vote to restore the funding and then override the governor’s veto, which is sure to come.
The stakes for our cities and towns are very high. For example, the city of Gardiner, if the money is not restored, will lose $296,000. Winthrop will lose $185,000; Manchester will be cut by $71,000; Readfield, $80,000; Monmouth, $125,000. These are staggering numbers as percentages of the municipal budget especially considering that so much of those budgets contain fixed costs that go up every year.
What are local officials to do? Will there be cuts in rescue and fire services? Will we see a reduction in police protection? Can local roads be maintained and properly taken care of in the winter? Will city jobs be cut? Will property taxes skyrocket to pay for just existing services? Something has got to give. Municipalities for decades have relied on revenue sharing in crafting their budgets.
We can predict considerable turmoil in Maine cities and towns if the Legislature fails to restore the $40 million. Said another way, we will see the “crisis of confidence” spill over to our local governments. Municipal officials will be forced to make extreme cuts in services or institute large property tax increases. It’s that simple. One or the other — unless the Legislature chooses to restore the funding to revenue sharing.
Maine people elect lawmakers to make decisions ensuring that our state, cities and towns are the best they can be. Our residents pay their property tax bills and trust their local representatives to adopt budgets that keep their town safe. They also pay state income and sales taxes and trust that some of that money will be returned to their city or town to help pay for necessary services. Not only is this a law, it is a historical promise and a trusted relationship between the state and communities.
The purpose of revenue sharing has always been to keep property taxes down. A drastic reduction in the program now will lead to considerable turmoil as local officials grapple with making extreme cuts in services or are forced to impose large property tax increases. Neither of these alternatives is necessary if the Legislature keeps its promise.
As a former mayor, city councilor and legislator, I am keenly aware of the partnership that exists between local and state government. I also am proud of my longtime public service. I recognize the trust that my constituents place in me — in all of us — when they cast their ballots. There is also a trust between state and local governments. Cutting revenue sharing undermines that trust and taxpayers will pay the price.
Some legislators are now working hard to restore the $40 million, to affirm the partnership that has worked well for both the state and Maine communities. Let’s hope they succeed.
Dave Bustin of Hallowell, a candidate for state Senate District 14, is a former city councilor, mayor and state legislator.