I often hear people say they wished that government was run more like business. While there are no doubt ways in which government might benefit from traits we attribute to a well-run business, the basic premise of each is different for a reason.

People start businesses to make money for the owners and for shareholders. People form governments so that individuals don’t have to take responsibility for their own education, safety, infrastructure, etc. while trying to earn a living. In return, they agree to pay taxes to support that work.

I can imagine there are a number of people who wouldn’t mind taking on their own safety, but how good would they be at keeping the street in front of their houses paved and plowed? Would they take a shovel with them in the winter to get where they need to go? How about getting out the hose should their chimney catch fire? Then, there’s the issue of education. While many parents opt for home schooling for their children, that might not work when both parents need to work for a living.

The way we determine what we need from the government and how we pay for it is by electing people to represent our interests.

While in Waterville trying to sell his tax reform proposal, Gov. Paul LePage asked Mike Roy, Waterville’s city administrator, “Do you represent the city of Waterville or do you represent the citizens of Waterville?” His question illustrates how someone who is familiar with how business is run is not necessarily someone who we should elect to run government.

When LePage was mayor of Waterville, he and the councilors were given the task to work out the city’s budget on residents’ behalf. It is, therefore, not a question of the city vs. the residents. We are the city, and the city is us. In his role as governor, LePage faces the same principle — we are the state and the state is us.

What, then, is in our best interest, whether we are the city or the state?

In the case of revenue sharing, the best interests of both the city and the state would be to invest in the kinds of activities that increase our ability to produce the revenue locally needed to help run the state. That was the premise behind revenue sharing in the first place.

Twice as many people come into Waterville during the day as live here. They come to work, shop, go to medical appointments, eat, drink and recreate. While they are here spending their money, they expect roads to be plowed, in good repair and garbage free, the streets to be safe, fire services available if they need them, and parks to be maintained.

It used to be that all of those visitors participated in paying for those services through the sales and income taxes they generated. LePage’s proposal to eliminate revenue sharing means that now all of those costs would be born solely by the people living in Waterville.

I actually think that progressives and conservatives agree that people who depend on the services Waterville and other municipalities provide should help pay for them. This is not a partisan issue.

Fortunately, Maine does not have one CEO to make decisions for us. We elect representatives, and it’s time for those representatives around the state, regardless of party, to stand up for us and fully support investments such as revenue sharing that are in our best interests.

In the last six years, most municipalities in the state have been through round after round of budget cutting, consolidation of departments and coordination with other municipalities to provide the services we all expect our taxes to provide.

In most cities and towns, it’s impossible not to cut budgets more without people decrying the loss of services. Cutting services at the local level is where the rubber meets the road, literally leaving wheels and tires bent and shredded.

While I’m not going to argue we don’t need to cut taxes, I do believe it can be done in a way that distributes the benefits more evenly across all income groups and perhaps raises even more revenue. Rather than maximizing our ability to tax out-of-state visitors and part-year residents, and to improve the overall fairness of Maine’s tax system, the governor wants to force cities and towns to further reduce their budgets, increase property taxes and/or dip even further into surplus funds.

Even if by some miracle, municipalities managed not to increase taxes or reduce services, Maine residents younger than 65 would lose our homestead exemption under the governor’s proposal, which is equivalent to raising property taxes by hundreds of dollars.

Most people probably would like to see tax reform that is fair and actually improves the state’s economy. LePage, however, is proposing the continuation of a system that shifts responsibilities to the local property taxpayers, which is decidedly not fair. I hope representatives of all parties have the backbone to vote in the best interests of their constituents.

 

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


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