Until I got elected myself and actually became one of those responsible for an annual municipal budget, I thought just like many of you.
I believed that there must be all kinds of bloat and waste in city budgets — what else would explain the increasing property taxes? Like so many others who have served, first-hand practical experience cured me of a very incorrect assumption.
I remember a supporter of mine who kept sending me messages that I wasn’t doing my job as a councilor because I was not cutting expenditures more. She kept saying there must be a great amount of waste that you should be able to find in local government. Not too long after I completed my council service, my supporter became a councilor herself, and for four terms she could not find the waste or abuse that she had previously assumed must be there.
What she and I discovered was that except for inflation affecting the cost of merely maintaining existing services demanded by the public, there were very few other identifiable reasons for the increasing property taxes.
That was in the early 1990s, long before the state began its more extreme raid in 2009 to rob municipalities of shared tax revenues created by our cities and towns.
Actually, in the case of Augusta, for 13 years, until the state’s ruinous cut in revenue sharing, the capital city’s taxes averaged a 1 percent increase, well below the annual inflation rate.
I well remember the transformation of Augusta Councilor Cecil Munson, who finally got elected after opposing the city’s budget and administration for many years. It wasn’t long into his first term before he saw the budget in an entirely different perspective.
Now, after almost seven years on the council, Munson repeatedly asks when challenged by constituents to cut taxes, “OK, please tell me, what current services are you willing to do without?”
There have been cuts, wherever possible. In Augusta, there are 34 fewer employees in the past four years, city manager support staff is down from four to one, there are fewer code enforcement officers, and there is general understaffing in many departments.
Let’s fast forward to today’s political environment and the city budgets currently on the table for the cities of Augusta and Waterville.
Before any cuts and adjustments are made, the respective city managers, Augusta’s William Bridgeo and Waterville’s Michael Roy, have submitted requests based upon city department head requests and school boards of approximately a 6 percent increase in taxation.
It is likely that with some hard work that the final budgets will probably produce a smaller increase in property taxes. Bridgeo has already suggested in early budget sessions a “stabilization fund” that could mitigate increases in taxes by tapping the city’s fund balance over the next three years. The plan would eventually bring the fund balance down by 2018 to the minimum 8.3 percent called for by the city charter.
Here are some important facts to know and consider.
In a recent article in this newspaper, Roy, whom I used to serve with on the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, is on point when he says, “Tax increases have been the direct result of raids on our revenue sharing funds by the politicians in Augusta.”
Roy points out that “while 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.”
In Augusta, as I study this year’s budget, several dominant points are present.
Seventy-six percent of the budget is found in what are essentially “fixed costs.” Police and fire protection, utilities, bond payments, public works, etc. Only 24 percent remains. Potential discretionary cuts, if we are to maintain essential and desirable municipal and educational services, are practically nonexistent.
Perhaps the most important information for us as taxpayers to be aware of is that the state is violating a statute that is on the books requiring the return of 5 percent of state revenues to Maine’s cities and towns.
In Augusta, over the past five years, the city has not received the more than $1.5 million a year that is mandated by this statute. In Waterville, Roy reports the loss of state revenue sharing, since 2009, has been $5.7 million.
In Augusta, Bridgeo makes the point in his budget statement, “were state revenue sharing to be funded to it’s statutory level, we’d not have needed a tax increase of 3.4 percent last year and Augusta would not need one this year.”
Some final points, lifted from the weekly Legislative Bulletin of the Maine Municipal Association, and an editorial in
And if the Legislature had not overridden Gov. Paul LePage, who incredulously sought total elimination of all state revenue sharing, matters would be even worse.
For some unknown reason, this former Waterville mayor and city councilor truly has concluded that it makes sense to “rob Peter” to pay Paul.
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.