ROCKLAND, Maine — A divided Rockland City Council opted Monday night, Feb. 13, against getting in the middle of the state debate on proposed cuts to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
The council voted 3-2 against a resolve sponsored by Councilor Elizabeth Dickerson to oppose the proposed cuts to MaineCare and other public assistance programs.
Dickerson argued that the Legislature was close to a vote on a budget package developed by the Appropriations Committee that restores some funding proposed for elimination by Gov. Paul LePage. She said the city’s resolve could influence the Legislature in its deliberations.
The majority of councilors, however, said the resolve offered no solution and should not be sent.
Councilor William Clayton was one of the three councilors voting to scuttle the resolve. He said the resolve was getting into a partisan debate, noting that there was no resolve offered when the state under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci failed to make its payments to Pen Bay Medical Center.
He said there are people in need but that DHHS does not have the money.
“These people are being screwed because there is so much fluff in the budget,” Clayton said.
Clayton said the city should not sit idly by if the state cuts are made. He also pointed out that earlier in the evening the council issued a commendation to local inns for a Pies on Parade event that raised money for the local food pantry. He said the city, businesses and organizations could try to deal with the impact of the cuts.
Mayor Brian Harden suggested the best action the council could take would be to contact the city’s legislators and pass on its concerns about the potential impact on Rockland.
Councilor Larry Pritchett said he also was against the resolve, in part, because it offered no solution.
Councilor Eric Hebert voted for the resolve, saying it was appropriate for local government to weigh in on a state issue that affects Rockland.
“There will be a trickle-backward effect,” Hebert said.
He noted that general assistance is a state-mandated program and that if the DHHS cuts are made, there will be increased demands on general assistance. He said that state taxes are more broad-based than property taxes, which is how local government pays for its operations.
“We should tell them to not make their problem our problem,” Hebert said.
Dickerson acknowledged she offered no solution in the resolve but pointed out that the state last year approved tax cuts for upper-income people, suggesting that these people could pay more taxes.
During the public comment session at the start of the council meeting, three residents spoke out against the resolve, saying the city should not be interfering in legislative matters.
Horatio “Ted” Cowan of Rockland criticized the proposed resolve,
“This is a form of political pandering that is an embarrassment to the city,” Cowan said.
In other action, the council voted to authorize the city manager to seek money for an environmental assessment of the former MacDougal School on Broadway and to plan for the eventual demolition of the building.
Councilors stressed that this vote would not guarantee the demolition of the building but would give them more information.
Melissa Harvill urged the city to do the environmental assessment but said in the end it might make more sense to repair the building rather than tear it down. She said she is interested in the building being used for a homeless shelter.