WATERVILLE — The City Council on Tuesday will consider a petition started by a candidate for the Maine State House that seeks funds from Colby College and Thomas College to lower the city’s tax rate over the next five years.

Mark Andre, a Republican candidate for the State House in District 110, said his petition has around 900 signatures, mostly from Waterville residents as well as business owners and employees who work in Waterville. He is hoping the council will join in supporting the petition and presenting it to the colleges.

The council will take up the request during Tuesday’s meeting at 7 p.m. in the council chambers on the third floor of The Center at 93 Main St.

The petition asks the two schools to contribute the amount of funds needed to lower Waterville’s tax rate from its current $25.27 to $18.95 for a period of five years. That amount would be about $15 million, Andre said.

“Right now, Colby has shown a tremendous willingness to help our community with different projects and improvements downtown,” Andre said. “What we’re trying to do is develop an economic plan to get the city up and running around those investments. Taxes are a problem and right now all the business those investments are attracting are going to the surrounding areas, not Waterville.”

He said the request would go to the colleges and not other tax-exempt properties such as hospitals or churches, because the colleges have already made significant investments in the city and “you have to start with the largest player first.”

“Maybe the hospitals and other nonprofits would see the value in this,” he said. “It’s a voluntary request we’re making, starting with the colleges and then maybe we can create a little community spirit among the other nonprofits.”

At least one city councilor, John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, said he is opposed to the idea.

“It would be nice to have a non-taxable like Colby jump in and pay some money, but I personally don’t think it’s the right way to do it,” O’Donnell said. “If the citizens want to present their petition, let them do it, but I don’t feel the council needs to jump on board and say, ‘We support this petition. Please give us money.’ I don’t think it’s our position as a city government to make that request or demand.”

Council Chairman Steve Soule, D-Ward 1, did not say whether he supports the idea, but said Andre is asking for a “significant gift.”

“Gifts, like grants, are far from a sure thing,” Soule said in an email.

Ruth Jacobs Jackson, a spokeswoman for Colby College, said in an email over the weekend the college does not have a comment on the petition.

Since 2015, Colby has spearheaded several multi-million-dollar downtown revitalization efforts, including a new mixed-use residential building for students and plans to convert The Center into an arts hub housing part of the Colby College Museum of Art.

They’ve also partnered with businesses, such as Portland Pie Co., which entered into a 10-year lease with Colby this spring and agreed to occupy space in the former Haines Building at 173 Main St. after it was bought by Colby.

While the college is largely tax-exempt, it currently pays about $43,000 in property taxes and has estimated that number will grow to $134,000 by 2018-2019 with some of the investments downtown.

Thomas College in Waterville. Staff photo by Rachel Ohm

MacKenzie Riley, a spokeswoman for Thomas College, also declined to comment Monday.

Andre said the goal of the request is to bring Waterville’s tax rate on par with the tax rate of surrounding areas such as Winslow, which has a tax rate of $17.94, and Oakland, which has a tax rate of $16.40.

“The improvements downtown are not translating to improvements in the whole city,” Andre said. “We need to get the whole city up and running because Waterville is a great place to live and if we can get the tax rate competitive, we would have people from all over the state and country wanting to move here because of the wonderful things Colby is doing downtown.”

Andre’s opponent in the House District 110 race, incumbent Colleen Madigan, a Democrat, said she thinks there are more sustainable ways to help Waterville’s tax situation than approaching Colby and Thomas for funds. House District 110 includes part of Waterville and part of Oakland.

“The council does a lot of work on the budget, and I think my role as a state representative is to do what I can to make their job easier by working in Augusta on things like reducing health care costs, improving educational funding, things like that,” Madigan said. “That’s the role of a state rep.”

Madigan said she has been an advocate for restoring revenue sharing, which she said could make a big difference in Waterville’s budget and other things like property tax credits and educational funding that could help lower the tax rate.

“I spend a lot of time in Augusta explaining to people we’re only 13 square miles and about one-third of our property is off the tax roles, so a lack of revenue sharing is hurting us more than other towns proportionally,” she said. “I think there needs to be a more sustainable solution than asking two educational institutions in town to lower our property taxes for five years. What happens in year six?”

Councilor Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 4, said he is not opposed to Andre’s idea but he has heard other councilors say they are concerned it could be divisive.

“I don’t see anything wrong with a petition showing the real sentiment in Waterville — that the tax rate is one of the highest in the state of Maine and there’s no remedy or concrete plan moving forward,” Mayhew said. “Everyone hopes with a new governor coming in we will have more revenue sharing, but right now there’s no prospect of that happening. Simply asking Colby to make a contribution to the tax rate, or Thomas, or other nonprofits, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

Mayhew said he is a big supporter of the downtown revitalization efforts by Colby and some councilors have expressed the idea they don’t want to “bite off the hand that feeds us.”

“I think that notion is completely false,” Mayhew said. “I think the city has to humble itself, especially now where we had an eight percent tax hike, which is significant. We need all the help we can get.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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