WATERVILLE — As the city faces a proposed $1.1 million increase in its municipal and school budget for 2014-15, a local lawyer Tuesday night complained to city officials that the current property tax rate — $27.40 per $1,000 of assessed valuation — already is too high.
Thomas J. Nale Jr. told city councilors the city is facing a financial crisis and has one of the highest tax rates in the state.
Mayor Karen Heck and Councilor Erik Thomas, D-Ward 4, sought to clarify the tax rate figure, saying Waterville is assessed at only 80 percent value, while some other municipalities are assessed at 100 percent, which makes Waterville’s tax rate appear much worse than others.
“If we were at 100 percent, we would have a mill rate of $19,” Heck said.
In a discussion that turned heated at times, Heck told Nale that one of the reasons for the city’s financial position is that the state owes it $5.7 million in revenue sharing funds.
“Have not all the cities in the state of Maine lost revenue sharing?” Nale responded.
Heck said the city also has been using surplus money to continue to provide services people want — services that in the past were funded by state revenue sharing money.
She said former Mayor Paul LePage, who now is governor, also cut city services and positions and consolidated some departments while he was in office in Waterville.
“Is the answer that, if we’re facing a budgetary crisis, we should blame the state?” Nale asked.
The financial debate was precipitated by remarks Thomas made on an entirely different topic — solid waste disposal.
The city has been exploring alternatives to its current practice of curbside trash pickup. Some officials, including Thomas, recommend that the city change to a pay-per-bag system. Under that system, people buy special trash bags for $2 each, fill them with their trash and leave them at the curb for pickup by the city truck. He and others also recommend that if the city go with that system, it also have a curbside single-stream recycling system.
Thomas on Tuesday night said one of the biggest complaints he gets about the proposed pay-per-bag system is that the city runs the risk of more illegal dumping.
He said a friend contacted him on Facebook, reported there was a lot of trash on County Road and took a picture of that trash to illustrate the scenario the city would experience if it adopts pay-per bag.
Thomas said he issued a challenge, inviting the friend to help him clean up the trash on County Road.
“Of course, he did not show up,” Thomas said, adding that he spent three hours of his afternoon there Tuesday, gathering the trash. The city’s Public Works Department would come and pick it up, he said.
Thomas said if people in the community have reached the point that they don’t think they’re able to dealing with something as simple as illegal dumping, they might as well call it a night.
“If people spend one-tenth of the time that they spend complaining doing something about the problem rather than waiting for the city to do it for them, then we’d all be better off,” Thomas said.
Shortly after that, Nale, who was sitting in the audience with his father, former mayor Thomas J. Nale, walked to the microphone and said he thought the statement Thomas made about sitting there, listening to a lot of people complain about problems, was a valid one.
However, Nale Jr. said, it was an ironic statement, considering that the city spends a lot to support people who don’t have any interest in solving problems. He then went on to cite property tax rates for municipalities such as Westbrook, Gardiner and Augusta, all of which are lower than Waterville’s.
Thomas told Nale Jr. the city’s general assistance budget is $130,000, and another $180,000 is spent in that department for administration.
“It costs more than the general assistance itself?” Nale Jr. asked of the administrative budget. “So what you’re saying is we have a program to give people general assistance and administer it to show them how to spend the money taxpayers are giving them?”
Thomas said that was part of it, but the employees do other things, such as make sure fraud does not take place and that people who need assistance are connected with other resources. Heck added that the department helps people get jobs and stable housing as well.
“This is very interesting,” Nale Jr. said. “So what you’re telling me is we have a general assistance program and in addition, administration that shows them how to get further assistance?”
Councilor John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, who also is a lawyer, said Nale Jr. made a good point. The city does have 80 percent property valuation and the tax rate is high, he said.
“We are very high and we are increasing taxes for the fourth year in a row, despite the fact that they’re very high,” O’Donnell said.
Heck noted that the city is a service center that pays for people who do not pay taxes here to get services. She was referring to the fact that the population of about 16,500 more than doubles during the day when people come into the city to work, shop and do other activities; but they use city services, and about 30 percent of city property is tax-exempt because it is owned by nonprofit organizations, including colleges, hospitals and churches.
“So is our response, raise taxes again, darn it?” O’Donnell asked.
Soon thereafter, Councilor Dana Bushee, D-Ward 6, tried to move the agenda along, saying the discussion had gone past the number of minutes allowed for people to speak under community notes.
“Are we able to do point of order or something?” she asked.
Heck then told Nale Jr. that if he wanted to argue about trash, he could come back next week when that issue will be discussed.
“I’m not arguing about trash,” he replied.