BANGOR, Maine — The question hanging over Monday’s Bangor City Council meeting was: Should a council take a strong stance that might influence voters on a referendum?
The answer from the public was an overwhelming, “Yes.”
“Don’t take a namby-pamby stance,” warned Bangor resident John Hanson. “We look to our elected leaders on these issues.”
“The moment calls for leadership,” Bill Sullivan said. “You should take as strong a position as you possibly can.”
City councilors, along with a crowded room full of residents, discussed two hot-button voter referendums that will be on the ballot in November. The first, known as TABOR II, would set limits on state and municipal budgets. The second would reduce auto excise taxes for a small percentage on vehicles five years old or newer.
After much debate — and with one exception — the Bangor City Council voted to oppose both referendums.
Councilor Geoffrey Gratwick outlined the city’s resolve opposing TABOR II — largely on the basis that it sets a policy of budgeting by referendum and undercuts the authority of elected officials.
Sen. Joseph Perry, D-Bangor, who has served on the Legislature’s taxation committee, agreed that TABOR II is bad tax policy. “I applaud the council for taking up this issue,” he said.
Councilor David Nealley, a lone dissenting voice in a crowded room full of supporters, said the citizen unrest represented by TABOR II keeps coming up for a reason.
“The shot over the bow has not been heard,” he said.
Nealley agreed that members of the public have a responsibility to inform themselves before the election in November. The council even added an amendment to the resolve urging the public to do just that.
Dan Tremble, a former city councilor, said that’s exactly why the council needs to be firm in its stance.
“If people think the council doesn’t care, they won’t see it as a big deal either,” he said.
Of the eight members of the public who spoke, each urged the council to oppose TABOR II. By the time councilors got around to the resolve opposing the auto excise tax referendum, the room was quiet. Most already had indicated opposition earlier in the evening, even though the city had separate resolves.
Councilor Hal Wheeler made a brief presentation of the auto excise tax referendum. Essentially, it would reduce taxes by about 50 percent on vehicles that are 5 years old or newer. However, 68 percent of Mainers own vehicles that are more than 5 years old.
“This is a measure that does more harm than good,” he said. “It won’t help those who need it most.”
If the referendum were to pass, it would cut about $1.8 million in city revenue annually. That would require either raising the property tax rate by 75 cents per $1,000 of property value or by cutting between 30 and 40 municipal jobs.
By passing both resolves, Bangor leaders — specifically City Manager Edward Barrett — can speak publicly in opposition on behalf of the city. Already, lobbying groups such as the Maine Municipal Association have mounted campaigns to fight both referendums.