Bangor property taxpayers should take notice. You will see a significant increase in your property taxes this year if proposed legislation regarding the state mandated municipal general assistance program is passed.
Municipal general assistance is outlined and defined in state law as a financial assistance program for persons who show demonstrated need for housing, food, fuel and basic living necessities. The state mandates that a municipality must provide assistance to any applicant who demonstrates need and does not cap the amount of taxpayer money used for the program. In addition, the state and federal constitutions prohibit municipalities from applying any residency requirement.
In other words, the constitution and state law require that the city must keep an open checkbook with minimal local control to manage, filter or control the program costs.
In return for the municipality managing and using local taxpayer money for this program, the state has a reimbursement program to pay back 50 percent. For those municipalities which exceed a state formulated amount, the state reimbursement rate changes to 90 percent for any additional general assistance support.
For Bangor, the 50 percent reimbursement rate ends at approximately $750,000. The remaining funds distributed through the general assistance program are reimbursed at the 90 percent level. To put it in perspective, in 2011 Bangor’s mandated general assistance was more than $3.5 million.
Lewiston and Portland also consistently surpass the state formulated threshold and therefore are reimbursed at the 90 percent level.
At this very moment, the Legislature is trying hard to fill holes in its budget and understandably so. One of the proposals to save over $5 million statewide is to eliminate the 90 percent reimbursement rate and keep only the 50 percent rate.
And while the proposed cut would indeed save money in the state budget, it does nothing to change the fact that municipalities cannot manage, filter, or cap the program at a local level and, again, the state mandates the program must exist.
If we look at just 2011 numbers, that would mean that taxpayers of Bangor would have to pay an additional $1.1 million for the program.
What Bangor taxpayers also need to know is that 2013 marks the initiation of the five-year cap for certain state assistance programs, such as TANF. While the policy and final language are still being crafted, there are 276 families in Bangor alone who may no longer qualify to receive state TANF funds to pay for their housing and basic needs. Should that happen, those families will be eligible and likely to participate in the municipal general assistance program. Should that happen, the taxpayers of Bangor will need an additional $750,000 to compensate for that enrollment increase.
The net effect of these two actions means Bangor taxpayers will need to fund nearly $2 million out of property taxes. That’s nearly a full dollar increase to the municipal mil rate.
Bangor’s ability to simply maintain its own essential services, maintain its aging infrastructure and invest in new economic development opportunities are threatened by the financial stresses of the general assistance program already. A $2 million increase to the program would simply devastate these goals.
Value for the property tax dollar, using budgets wisely and local control are all issues that I firmly believe in. In my opinion, this single topic violates all three.
There are common sense solutions and ways to fix, filter and better control this program. But the proposal to cut the reimbursement percentage simply puts more financial stress onto the backs of taxpayers in Bangor and does nothing to address the core issues.
The answer to this problem is not to put the financial stress onto the taxpayers of Bangor. We can do better than that.
If you feel like I do that this is an issue that needs to be addressed in a common sense manner, that local control is essential and that taxpayer value is important, then your help in reaching out today to legislators in your area is critical.
There is a working group of municipal leaders who see a better way and are ready to roll up our sleeves and be a part of the solution. We simply need the chance to participate in the decision making process.
Cary Weston serves as mayor of Bangor and is a founding member of the Mayor’s Coalition for Jobs & Economic Development.