Going, going, gone. More than 40 Maine towns have disbanded over the last century, many to escape punishing property taxes. The Legislature will vote this session on a petition to deorganize from the 53 residents of Oxbow in Aroostook County, and a recent move by Cary Plantation to deorganize and join the Unorganized Territory is drawing a lot of attention, including from the New York Times, where reporter Jess Bidgood noted that “some residents say the (property) taxes’ growth has pushed this community of about 200 to the brink. To save Cary Plantation, they say, they want to dismantle it.”
“What do you do, what does the town do, when they can’t pay their bills? Do we go bankrupt? Do we lose our homes?” asked Diane Cassidy, a former nursing assistant who lives in Cary Plantation. “There was no answer, other than deorganization,” she told Bidgood.
I found Bidgood’s story when Tony Ronzio, the former editor of this newspaper who now edits the Bangor Daily News, posted it on his Facebook page. I posted the following comment after reading the news story: “Thanks for sharing this Tony. Isn’t it amazing that our governor wants to repeal the income tax, and ignores the fact that it’s the property tax that needs attention.” Soon after, Jonathon LaBonte responded with this comment: “It’s the property tax because 490-plus municipalities believe they are autonomous kingdoms.”
Apparently LaBonte doesn’t have much respect for the small towns of rural Maine. This is significant because LaBonte is Auburn’s mayor and Gov. LePage’s director of the Office of Policy and Management.
Unable to resist the temptation, I responded to LaBonte, resulting in the following exchange:
Me: Actually, the governor and Legislature have repeatedly reduced funding for local government, which is still governed by many state mandates from education to solid waste disposal.
LaBonte: How much subsidy is enough to sustain 490-plus kingdoms to serve 1.3 million people? It’s illogical and a New England issue. In most states, counties dominate and towns don’t incorporate with less than 5,000 people.
Me: Surely, you are not suggesting we force towns to merge. Republicans once championed local control!
LaBonte: I’m suggesting you don’t understand the issue so are using 40-year-old talking points as if more tax money raining down from Augusta would solve this problem. It won’t.
Me: I’ve been working on this issue, and writing about it, longer than you’ve been alive Jonathan. I’ve also served in local and county government. The property tax is a significant problem, and much of that problem is driven by state mandates and lack of funding from the state.
LaBonte: Point confirmed. Thank you.
I gave up at that point, still perplexed as to why the governor and his supporters, including LaBonte, continue to punish residents of Maine’s small towns, and have launched an initiative to repeal the state income tax, which would drive property taxes even higher.
Ninety percent of Maine’s municipalities are small towns with annual town meetings, where we citizens get to make the tax and spending decisions. Only 10 percent have elected councils like LaBonte’s city of Auburn. Perhaps we could suggest to him that Lewiston and Auburn merge?
A poll of Mainers presented last December by Lance Dutson, a Republican political consultant, reported that 48 percent of Mainers said property taxes should be the priority for reduction, while 30 percent said the income tax and 13 percent the sales tax.
Let’s take a look at where our revenue really comes from. The latest data I could easily access came from Governing.com, for 2012. The state raised $1,444,926,000 from the income tax and $1,064,342,000 from the sales tax. Another $1,267,861,000 came from all other state taxes.
I could not find the total property taxes raised in 2012, but in 2008 that total was $2 billion.
Yes, we are raising more revenue from the property tax than from the income or the sales tax. Doesn’t that make you question why the governor is proposing to repeal the income tax, the only tax based on your ability to pay?
Now let’s talk about our wonderful small towns. When I was a Mount Vernon selectman in the 1980s, one selectman would open the mail and hand it to the chairman, and if it was from the state or federal government, he’d hand it to me and I’d drop it in the wastebasket. Today, we’d probably be arrested. Small towns are very much in the grip of state government.
But consider what our towns are responsible for: education, roads, police, fire protection, solid waste, and lots more from recreation to libraries. And isn’t that just about everything that’s important to us?