AUGUSTA — The ballot battle for mayor pits William E. Dowling, a former mayor and city councilor, against David Rollins, a veteran current city councilor.

Another veteran councilor, Michael Byron, is running for mayor as a write-in candidate.

At stake Nov. 4 is the remaining year of former Mayor William Stokes’ term in the city’s top elective post. Stokes resigned in July when he was appointed a state superior court justice.

Dowling, mayor of Augusta from 1999 to 2006 and Ward 2 city councilor from 1995 to 1998, said he seeks to return to city government because he believes the city could benefit from his unique mix of experience gained from 26 years in state government, his previous stints as city councilor and mayor in Augusta, and the connections and skills he’s picked up in his last 15 years working as director of development for Dirigo Capital Advisors, a Hallowell-based firm that developed and owns some major commercial properties in Augusta.

Rollins, a three-term at-large city councilor elected in 2007, who works as a real estate appraiser, said he wants to be mayor to continue the work he started as a city councilor to improve the quality of life in the city, solve problems, bring the community together and balance the need for commercial development with protecting the city’s neighborhoods and historic assets.

Byron, the current Ward 1 city councilor, who will be term-limited out of his council seat in January, is the former town manager of Litchfield. He said he decided to run for mayor, after the deadline to submit nomination papers, because he feels he is better qualified than the other candidates to guide the city through upcoming challenging financial times. He cited his financial expertise and background, which includes his time on the council, previous municipal experience as a selectman when he lived in neighboring Manchester, and his past career as a commercial lender.

Rollins, 59, said what differentiates him from his opponents and makes him a better choice for mayor is his extensive involvement in the community, which goes well beyond just being a city councilor or a businessman in the city.

“The big difference between me, Mr. Dowling and Mr. Byron is my level of engagement with this community. You see me everywhere,” Rollins said. “I’ve shown a record of being committed and passionate about the overall health and welfare of this community.”

Among his accomplishments are the redevelopment of Alumni Field, working to protect neighborhoods from sex offenders and helping to bring a business academy to the Capital Area Technical Center, he said.

Dowling, 66, said he has a breadth of experience, and background of accomplishment, that Rollins does not have.

“I was there when we built the new Cony High School, and when the third bridge was built. Those were economic stimulators to the city,” Dowling said. “I don’t need on-the-job training, I’ve dealt with both state and local budgets in my career.”

Dowling said a major issue facing the city is the need to level out the increasing property tax rate. He said state cuts of revenue sharing to municipalities have forced Augusta and other municipalities to increase property taxes, and his time as a state employee whose job required him to testify before the Legislature numerous times gives him the skill set needed to advocate for increased levels of state revenue sharing. He said the city’s aging population especially can’t afford to pay higher property taxes. He also said the city should develop property the city holds, including the former Statler mill site alongside the Kennebec River, to convert it from tax-exempt to taxpaying status, and broaden the city’s tax base with commercial and residential development.

“You have to base the budgets on need, and not want,” he said. “Every avenue or alternative source of funds should be looked at before we go to the taxpayer. We should expand the tax base by getting growth in the community to spread the cost (of city services). That’s not happening at a fast enough rate in the community.”

Rollins said he and his fellow councilors have worked hard to limit property tax increases over the last 10 years to an average increase of 1.5 percent — less than the increase of the cost of living over that time — despite a major decrease in state revenue, escalating costs and the need to continue providing city services that already have been trimmed of any inefficiencies.

“To maintain the current level of services and not have tax increases, as costs escalate and with the loss of state revenues, we’ll be forced, as we have been already, to make difficult decisions about what levels of cuts we can make versus what level of tax increases we can pass through the budget process,” Rollins said. “The way to increase revenues is to increase the tax base. If we can see an upswing in development, and existing businesses expanding, that will help on the revenue side of things.”

Byron, 78, said development alone won’t solve the city’s financial woes. He said to generate enough new revenue to offset just a 1 percent increase in the combined $52 million city and school budget, the city would have to see a new $27 million Augusta Crossing-sized development every year, which, he noted, isn’t likely to happen. He said a key development that could help the city’s finances is the arrival of natural gas as an option to heat homes and businesses in the area. He said as people in the area convert to the cheaper heating source, they will save money and thus have more disposable income to spend. Also, Byron said, Augusta is the region’s retail hub, and thus businesses here stand to garner a good share of that newfound disposable income.

Dowling said his job as a developer in a city where the company he works for has a significant number of properties would not present a conflict of interest, nor did it in his previous stint as mayor. He said while mayor he did not, and would not in the future, vote on issues that affect the firm for which he works. He added that he is an employee of the firm, not an owner or investor.

Both the on-the-ballot candidates said the city has a role to play in helping make sure there is adequate housing for residents in the city, but differ in their proposed approaches.

Dowling said the city should speak to people in the housing business to find one or more entities to fill a void in low-income housing.

Rollins said the city should continue its tough stance with landlords to make sure their buildings meet safety codes, and it should work closely with the Augusta Housing Authority to increase the availability of housing.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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