We have become a rudderless ship lost in a stormy sea with fiscal responsibility on the back burner, with fantasies of increased revenue sharing bailing us out. The deckhands surround us, trying to reap monies no longer available in a coordinated effort to protect a governmental infrastructure the residents can no longer afford. If only city and school officials had more money to spend, if only the well wasn’t dry. If only the residents trusted us with raising the mil rate by 3 to 4 mils, we promise to get it right this one last time.

This describes the plight of Waterville, one of the highest taxed cities in Maine, while demographically being one of the poorest. The city manager and school superintendent are proposing massive tax increases, all to avoid making structural changes that are necessary to secure our local economy, school funding and a rejuvenated housing market. Most importantly, structural changes would protect residents, including students, from being overtaxed from their homes.

The proposed draconian 3 to 4 mil tax increase would be devastating to our community. If city and school officials are successful, a home valued at $100,000 will see an approximate annual tax increase of $255. A home valued at $200,000 would increase about $555. This unsustainable trajectory will continue growing into next year and beyond. There will never be tax relief, only massive increases, unless restructuring occurs now.

We’re hearing promises of increased downtown revitalization revenues. Unfortunately, this is a smokescreen because the increased revenues are minuscule and will be absorbed by inflation and increased downtown expenditures. The last time they promised increased revenues, we were left with a $2 million bill from water and sewer lines sunken into an abyss at Head of Falls.

The claim that residents aren’t properly funding our schools is disingenuous. School funding has doubled in the last 20 years, during a time of significant reductions in student enrollment. Ironically, the superintendent and school board are now acknowledging a tremendous savings by closing the Hall School. It’s conceivable that $500,000 to $750,000 would be saved annually, equating to upwards of 1 mil. School officials have delayed long enough, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. The pitting of teacher vs. residents must end. To protect our community, students and teachers, I challenge school officials to implement this consolidation beginning in the 2017-2018 school year, rather than waste more tax dollars on brick and mortar. Put classrooms before buildings.

It’s time to begin living within our means as the property tax trajectory will force many veterans, elderly, single parents, the middle class and those on low and fixed incomes from their homes. The least among us will be hurt the most. Efforts at revitalizing downtown will be squashed because residents having little or no disposable income, all because City Hall is claiming their unfair share and unwilling to tackle this crisis.

Their shortsightedness and wishful thinking threaten our future. The belief that we can maintain the status quo is destroying the residential taxpayers who are the lifeblood of secure short- and long-term school funding. The taxpayers can no longer be viewed as cash cows. What good are services if we end up destroying the people these services are supposed to benefit? It’s time to prioritize expenditures and protect the residents so that taxpayers become the sacred cows, instead of departmental heads and special interests. We will never have a successful local economy if we destroy the residential homeowners and businesses through an unsustainable and non-competitive mil rate. Our future economic engine requires that we embrace change and make these tough budgeting decisions now. Our moral obligation requires that we protect our residents, secure long-term funding for our schools and build a city that becomes vibrant once again. Maintaining last year’s 22.8 mil rate is an attainable goal and will prevent the city from accelerating into a death spiral.

The days of short-term reductions, such as postponing paving projects, reducing departmental training, money shuffles or the depletion of savings accounts, are over. Last year, the city manager stated that their reductions only kicked the can down the road. Unfortunately, their kicked can came back with a vengeance this year. Our budget crisis must be addressed now.

We’re asking for strong leadership that puts the needs of residents and local businesses before the wants of well-intentioned deckhands. Through shared sacrifice, teamwork and community spirit, we will prevail, but only if we realize we can’t be all things to all people.

Gary Maheux lives in Waterville.

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