Thomas Jefferson knew that for a democracy to function effectively, we need an educated citizenry. That’s why we have free public education paid for by all taxpayers, whether they have children or not. An understanding of issues is critical for taxpayers. That’s not to say there won’t be disagreements on how to solve problems. However, with some education issues affecting the community can be debated by taxpayers on their merits, not on their feelings.

It would have been helpful to have had some public education over the last several months about why the property revaluation was needed in Waterville and how it would affect residents and businesses. Public understanding of what’s in the budget, how revenues are generated and why Waterville services cost what they do would also have been helpful.

I began to understand the budget and what the loss of revenue-sharing dollars does to a service center like Waterville when I became mayor. I decided that the community needed to understand those things, too. For that reason, I hosted several Community Convergence sessions so that voters could understand what revenue sharing was, how being a service center affected the budget, how economic development in surrounding towns does not translate into property tax relief in Waterville, and the benefits of living in this city. I also used opportunities during council meetings to keep that information in front of voters because it’s important for people to remember it come budget time.

That’s not to say that everyone was happy about tax increases. It is to say that most people had a better understanding of what was driving the increase in their taxes.

There are several benefits to the economy of being a service center, but having to deal with extra traffic, wear and tear on our streets, policing, and fire safety puts strains on the budget for which people living outside and coming into Waterville each day don’t pay. While 16,000 people live here, 16,000 daily visitors make the costs of public works, fire and police services far higher than in the surrounding towns. While Waterville residents try to figure out how to pay for those costs, surrounding towns are also facing budget issues.

Taxpayer relief for all of us would be immediate if could use some of that $159 million surplus the governor announced is sitting in Augusta. If Waterville could just get the $500,000 we lost in revenue sharing this year, our mil rate would drop.

Knowing that won’t happen and bowing to the threat of a petition, the council is agreeing to re-open the budget. However, being able to cut enough to significantly lower taxes this year is unlikely. The problem is there isn’t a half-million dollars of expenses to cut. To find money like that, structural changes need to be made. Those types of changes take some years to implement. Teacher retirement costs (which the state transferred to localities a few years ago in an effort to cut its own costs), as well as police, fire and public works departments, constitute the major chunks of the budget.

And, yes, the bond payments constitute a piece, too, but those investments were necessary. The police station had to be built, the roads needed to be repaired and the interest rates were at an all-time low.

Unless revenue sharing magically reappears, structural changes in the budget are the only way the city will be able to significantly reduce the budget. Those types of changes take time. We need to start being creative and we need to fully engage the surrounding towns in the discussion about how to create a sustainable, desirable central Maine. The infrastructures and the taxpaying residents of all our towns will benefit if we are successful.

Creating a fire district for our four towns, similar to the Kennebec Sanitary District, would be one avenue to explore. All four towns now cooperate when extra firefighting power is needed, but all the towns now pay for that service out of taxes. We pay for water and sewage services based on how much we use. Why not do that for firefighting?

Combining some Waterville and Winslow schools and closing some would be another avenue to explore. It might just mean together we have stronger sports teams competing at a higher level and a wider variety of subjects. Who knows, maybe we could even restore music and art?

What about a utility district that includes alternative energy, a combined police force, and/or public works department?

It’s not going to be an easy process, but educating and engaging residents from around the area will ensure a stronger more prosperous future for us all. We aren’t ever going to eliminate taxes, and restructuring will mean change, which is generally hard for people.

However, Yankee ingenuity and strong administrative and elected leadership can make our four towns a place where people want to come to live because the schools are good, the streets are safe, the environment is green, the taxes are reasonable, and life is the way it should be.

Karen Heck is a longtime resident and former mayor of Waterville.