BANGOR, Maine — The Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Taxation Committee turned up at Monday night’s City Council meeting to express frustration over a recent newspaper commentary in which the councilors took the state to task for budget cuts aimed at offsetting a projected $438 million revenue shortfall.
“The letter lays out the really difficult challenges that the state is facing with its own budget and the city is facing, and then it points the finger back at Augusta.” Sen. Joseph Perry, D-Bangor, said during the public comment portion at the beginning of the meeting.
Noting the council’s new makeup and stated desire for a “new direction,” Perry said he hoped that direction “is not one of blaming and finger-pointing.” He said he hoped the views councilors expressed in their piece wouldn’t set the tone for a Jan. 28 meeting between councilors and Bangor’s legislative delegation.
In the piece, published in Saturday’s edition of the Bangor Daily News, Bangor’s nine councilors said that several recommendations in Gov. John Baldacci’s proposed supplemental budget, which cuts $438 million from the existing two-year spending blueprint, will have “serious and wide-reaching effects” on local government.
The councilors pegged the potential state funding losses for the city at $1.8 million to $2 million in state revenue sharing over the next 18 months, and cited recent and proposed cuts in education funding amounting to $754,000 this year and up to $2 million next year. They said plans to adjust the reimbursement formula for general assistance could mean the loss of an additional $550,000 during next fiscal year.
They urged residents to check out the proposed supplemental budget and its effect on municipalities and “join us in demanding that these proposed reductions be restored.”
Perry’s question for the councilors was how, then, did they think the budget gap should be closed.
“Are you talking about [having state government] absorb all $438 million worth of cuts [or] are you advocating for an increase in the sales tax?”
Noting that the councilors had taken positions on state budget issues in the past, Perry told them, “If that’s your position, that we need to increase taxes on the state level because there’s no place for the city to cut, I think it’s an obligation to stand up and say that to the public.”
Perry asked for “feedback and ideas that we may be able to use to undo the pain.”
Though council Chairman Richard Stone warned that the meeting was not the proper forum for a debate, a few councilors offered responses, including Councilor Hal Wheeler.
Wheeler said cuts to general assistance might not amount to an “unfunded mandate,” but that general assistance was an entitlement program, “and we have no choice but to provide it.” Regarding education cuts, he said the state has yet to meet the 55 percent share voters passed in 2004.
“I think you can understand that gives cause to be very concerned about priorities being set this budget year,” he said. “I hope you will be addressing the governor’s adamant refusal to even consider a temporary increase in the sales tax, which could result in $90 [million] to $180 million in additional revenues.”