About 12 years ago, concerned about how I felt my city government was failing to appreciate the importance of supporting our local business community, I got up off the couch, took out nomination papers and ran for City Council. Several terms as an at-large councilor and four years as mayor have helped me understand the complex nature of city government and the ongoing huge challenge of finding the right balance between providing all of the important services that our residents want and need and identifying the fairest way to raise the money to pay for those goods and services.

I have learned that our dedicated municipal administrators — managers, fire and police chiefs, public works directors and numerous others — are not excessive spenders but rather conscientious professionals committed to seeing to our community’s needs in the most cost-effective way they can. I have learned that no form of taxation is popular but the most universally unpopular (and most burdensome to those of limited means) is the property tax. And yet, it is this form of taxation that Maine has chosen to rely upon for all of the services closest to the people.

I am now beginning, along with my City Council members, the arduous two-month process of reviewing, modifying and adopting the city of Augusta’s 2019-20 operating budget. If it’s like the last dozen I’ve done, it will be frustrating, because I’ll know that were the state to honor its responsibility to share is broad-based income and sales tax revenues with local governments, we’d be in good shape with no property tax increases (it’s true that Gov. Janet Mills has taken positive steps in that direction but sadly not enough to fix the problem).

To provide a new source of revenue to cities and towns to help us meet our obligations, three groups that I work with (Maine Municipal Association, the Mayors’ Coalition and the Service Center Coalition) have come together to propose to the Legislature that a law be enacted that would give local communities the ability to place an extra penny on the sales tax, provided the voters in that community approve it. The revenues generated would be targeted to controlling the property tax burden. It’s a practice that works well in 38 other states

So, I was pretty upset with columnist Jim Fossel’s piece the other day slamming the local option sales tax concept (“Local-option tax wrong direction for Maine,” April 7). His suggestion that local governments should “cut costs and constrain spending” insults the hard work that my colleagues on the council and I have labored to do year after year. His assertion that a local option sales tax is “fundamentally flawed” is not backed up by any data. Indeed the data that is out there nationally strongly suggests otherwise.

Recently, I called the local chambers of commerce in Burlington and Rutland, Vermont. What I heard was consistent from each chamber. Initially, like here, there were concerns of community to community competition and border community fears of the effect and adverse impact of business flowing to New Hampshire. Now, five or six years later, the negative effect to the business community has not materialized. Meanwhile both communities have seen improvements in public services. Simply put, the municipalities are healthier and property taxes have been stabilized.

Last week, while testifying before the Legislature’s Taxation Committee on this issue, I was asked what cities and towns would spend this money on. My response is that we would be better able to meet all of the local funding needs for energy efficiency, public works, public safety, education, and community life, with less reliance on the property tax. Are the roads and sidewalks in your town acceptable, are the municipal buildings updated and energy efficient, is the technology current, are classroom sizes too large, are teachers’ salaries what they ought to be? Simply put, we would make our cities and towns better, and in the process make Maine better.

So back to why I got up off the couch. I believe businesses need healthy cities and towns and that investors want to invest in healthy communities. As an independent business person I believe that collecting a small additional increment on the sales tax and directing it to the fiscal health of the community from whence it comes is a win-win and probably long overdue.

 

David Rollins is mayor of Augusta.

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