It is your turn to have ultimate authority over all budget discussions in the city of Waterville, and you have just been given $5,706,669 in additional money to spend on city needs.
That amount is not a random number. It is the amount that the governor and Legislature have withheld from Waterville taxpayers since 2009. Instead of making the hard decisions to cut programs or raise taxes, they simply took money from the municipal revenue sharing program and left it up to the towns and cities to do the dirty work on their behalf.
“Wait,” you might say, “Isn’t the revenue sharing program fixed in the law?” Yes, the law does say that 5 percent of all income and sales tax revenues collected by the state are to be shared with towns and cities across Maine. Unfortunately, this is a case where a new Golden Rule applies: He who has the gold makes the rules, and the governor and the Legislature have the gold and have chosen to ignore the rules.
Gov. John Baldacci and the Legislature at that time started this practice, but it has accelerated under Gov. Paul LePage. In fact, our governor has recommended eliminating the revenue sharing program entirely, calling it “municipal welfare.”
Still curious, you may rightly ask, “Why should the state return any of this money? Isn’t all of this money paid to the state?”
While it’s true that sales and income taxes are paid to the state, they are all generated at the local level. That’s why the concept of revenue sharing was enshrined in state law nearly 40 years ago.
Towns and cities provide all the necessary services for businesses to grow and prosper. We plow and pave the roads, provide fire and police protection and offer many economic incentives such as Tax Increment Financing districts, which all come at our own expense. Without municipal support for job creation and business growth, a lot less would be collected in Augusta in sale and income taxes.
The state collects over $2 billion per year in sales and income taxes. Is 5 percent of that too much to ask for what service center communities such as Waterville do to help generate that money?
You also might ask, “Didn’t the Legislature just vote to restore some of your revenue sharing money?” Yes and no. What the Legislature did was enact a bill that prohibited the Legislature from taking yet another $40 million in revenue sharing funds. Instead of losing over $770,000 in this latest round of cuts, we lost only $91,000. The most important point is that since 2009, Waterville has lost $5,706,669 in revenue sharing money. To cover this loss, the city has made cuts, used surplus and increased property taxes.
So, what would you do with $5.7 million more to spend? Would you replenish the city’s surplus fund, which, at one time, stood at $10.4 million and now is down to $6 million? Would you use it to lower the tax rate, which has risen over 13 percent over the last three years? Would you hire some of the teachers that have been cut or increase our police force to help combat the influx of out-of-state drugs in our communities? Would you use this money to repair our streets, which always need attention?
Or would you decide to let the state keep the money and spend it as they see fit?
The 2014-15 budget I recently submitted to the Waterville City Council calls for a tax increase of 5.8 percent. Unless more than $1 million is cut from this budget, it will represent the fourth consecutive year of tax increases.
These tax increases have been the direct result of raids on our revenue sharing funds by the politicians in Augusta.
Since you’ve been granted authority to spend the $5,706,669 illegally taken from us, would you prefer to see it spent here or in Augusta?
Michael J. Roy is city manager of Waterville. His 37-year career in local government also included town manager of Vassalboro and Oakland.