BANGOR, Maine — Facing an unexpected potential $1.1 million shortfall in state funding, city councilors discussed their three options should a drastic cut in general assistance reimbursement by the state occur.
And judging from their reactions and public comments at a budget workshop Thursday afternoon, all three are unpopular and distasteful.
“It’s a reality we must face, and an ugly one at that,” said Councilor Cary Weston. “This is not a program I am in favor of keeping. It’s a program I’m in favor of drastically changing, but the reality is this: 1.1 million dollars is going to be coming out of our pockets one way or another if this doesn’t change.”
“This” is Gov. Paul LePage’s recent line-item veto of a 5 percent cut in the level of reimbursement funding by the state to five “service center” cities — Bangor, Lewiston, Portland, Auburn and Augusta. Maine now reimburses 50 percent of their general assistance expenditures to all municipalities and 90 percent of city’s GA expenditures above the $750,000 mark.
LePage’s veto means that higher rate could fall back all the way to 50 percent, leaving Bangor with a projected $1.1 million decrease in expected state funds.
General assistance is city welfare services in areas such as housing, food, fuel and basic living necessities which the state requires service centers to provide to disadvantaged people.
City Manager Cathy Conlow presented the seven councilors present – Geoffrey Gratwick and Joe Baldacci were unable to attend — with three options if the higher GA reimbursement rate goes away: raise property taxes 46 cents on the mill rate; cut nonmandated services such as parks and recreation, the public library, police and fire; or defy state statute by capping or limiting GA expenditures.
Councilor Sue Hawes seemed to favor the third option, which some councilors referred to as the “nuclear” one.
“Can we limit the hours, close the doors completely, limit how much we give? Everything’s been no, no, no so far,” said Hawes, who added that a lot can change between now and the end of June when the city has to vote on a budget. “I don’t think any municipality should be put in that position, but if we have to go there to get something done for the good of the whole state and not just Bangor… maybe we have to do that.”
James Gallant said he would not vote for a tax increase, no matter what. Fellow Councilor Pat Blanchette was less resolute.
“I know where it’s coming from and I’m not happy. It’s coming from the second floor in Augusta,” she said. “But we really have very little choice. I will never say I won’t raise taxes, because that is a false promise and we very well may have to.”
Councilors Nelson Durgin and Ben Sprague seemed more amenable to investigating potential cuts.
“The idea of a nuclear option … sounds appealing, but in my mind, it’s just irresponsible governing. It’s not what we were elected to do,” said Sprague. “The relationship between the state is supposed to be a symbiotic one. It doesn’t always feel that way, especially lately.
“I would rather see a more creative option, if we do have a tax increase, to call it something like the Maine State House failure tax. Or maybe what we need to do is look more closely at our own budget.”
“If it means we have to make some cuts somewhere or change the way we deliver services, than we have to look at that,” Durgin said. “We have to send a strong message to Augusta as to what this is doing to service centers and we also have to do the best job we can to scrub down this budget and see what we can find to free up dollars to take care of the things we’re mandated to do and not go nuclear.”
Councilor Charlie Longo tried to come up with a real cost to Bangor taxpayers.
“According to my calculator, if the average assessed value of a Bangor home is around $150,000, a 46-cent mill rate increase would be about another $69 for the average homeowners due to this,” he said.
Both Reps. Doug Damon, R-Bangor, and Adam Goode, D-Bangor — who Weston lauded for their efforts in resisting drastic cuts in GA reimbursement to service centers — attended the session.
“I feel like the decision going from 90 to 85 percent reimbursement with the appropriations budget and an understanding we’d be going no further, it was a good deal for Bangor,” said Goode.
Goode added that he thought the notion that anyone in Augusta would cut GA or other funding to Bangor or other cities because of a perceived political leaning was ridiculous. He was reacting to comments Durgin heard on a recent radio show advancing such a theory.
“There are five of you service centers and 235 of them and I found little sympathy from them,” said Damon. “Generally, those towns’ representatives felt the cities like Bangor and Portland were not doing all they could do to control the costs of general assistance.”
If it stands, Weston said the cut represents an unfunded mandate.
“It’s really quite a dire situation, quite honestly,” said Weston. “If you’re going to mandate that city taxpayers keep an open checkbook with no local control, then you need to continue funding it as is and let us look at efficiencies, or give us local control and allow us to decrease local funding.
“But it can’t be both ways. That’s an unfunded mandate we won’t accept.”