Bangor panel can’t agree on tax pledge

Posted Feb. 02, 2010, at 9:31 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Some city councilors want to make a pledge now that they will pass a budget later this year that holds the municipal side of Bangor’s tax rate steady. Others are worried that rushing to make such a pledge would back the council into a corner before many budget variables are resolved.

Although Monday’s initial finance committee discussion of an order pushed by council Chairman Richard Stone failed to generate a recommendation to the full council, Stone said the discussion is not over.

“I believe it will be back at the next finance committee meeting [Feb. 15], and I believe it will pass,” he said Tuesday.

Councilors passed a similar resolve before approving last year’s budget, but that didn’t happen until late May. Additionally, that pledge was to keep the entire Bangor tax rate flat at $19.05 per $1,000 of property value.

This year’s council order comes up much earlier in the budget process and addresses only the municipal portion of the tax rate, which is $9.28. It does not figure in the school department’s share ($8.71 last year) or the share to Penobscot County ($1.06).

David Nealley said it was healthy for the council to set its position first in order to direct staff and perhaps set the tone for the school department and county.

Pat Blanchette sharply disagreed, primarily because a budget that holds the tax rate flat will require significant reductions in services and possibly in staff since Bangor stands to receive a lot less in state revenue sharing.

“I know we all want to look and feel good, but we’re asking for a recipe for disaster,” she said.

Hal Wheeler said he couldn’t support the pledge as it stands because it puts more burden on an already burdened staff to make unpopular budget cuts.

“It’s always been my impression that the responsibility lies with the City Council,” he said.

Gerry Palmer agreed and called the pledge “arbitrary bordering on capricious.”

The city faces an estimated reduction of $1.5 million in state subsidy for the 2011 fiscal year. In order to keep a flat tax rate, at least $1.5 million will need to be reduced from the city’s expenditures. Another unknown is whether the many unions that represent municipal employees will ask for salary increases, something that is likely to generate significant debate among councilors.

After it became clear Monday that there were not enough votes among finance committee members to recommend the pledge to the full council, the matter was postponed with the understanding that it likely would be revisited.

“We have a long way to go,” Councilor Susan Hawes said. “I think everyone knows we’re serious about avoiding any tax increases.”

When the matter does go to full council, the vote will almost certainly be close.

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