BRUNSWICK, Maine — Some local officials are criticizing their Democratic state senator after he showed support for legislation from the LePage administration they say will prevent local control of redevelopment efforts at Brunswick Landing.
In addition to supporting the governor’s bill, Sen. Stan Gerzofsky is preparing his own legislation that would prevent towns from blocking economic development efforts — another move that has local officials concerned.
While Gerzofsky said the bill is not specific to Brunswick, he has been a vocal critic of the town’s attempts to control redevelopment efforts at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.
“I think the state has been very generous with its support of redevelopment of the base,” Gerzofsky said Wednesday. “I don’t see where the Town Council has been supportive of redevelopment of the base.”
Town Manager Gary Brown said that while he has not seen the language for Gerzofsky’s bill, he said he would like the senator to identify examples of where the town has impeded redevelopment efforts.
“He needs to identify the problem before he identifies the solution,” Brown said. “We have passed every single zoning ordinance [at the base]. I’m at a loss as to what we have done that could impede redevelopment.”
For the authority overseeing Brunswick Landing, the town’s taxation of property for one tenant, Kestrel Aviation, has also become an issue — and possibly an impediment to business growth.
Steve Levesque, executive director for Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, said his group believes Kestrel is exempt from paying property taxes, according to the MRRA’s interpretation of Maine law.
While Levesque said the authority was originally seeking legal action against the town to challenge its stance, he’s now leaving the decision to the state and the legislation proposed by the Department of Economic and Community Development.
The official language is not yet available for L.R. 492, but DECD Commissioner George Gervais said the bill will seek to clarify the tax exemption status for aviation companies at municipal airports across the state.
“We have a statute that is being interpreted differently by municipalities throughout the state,” Gervais said, “and it needs to be resolved because we need to have certainty in determining [tax-exempt] status.”
Gervais said the legislation is “strictly a statewide issue,” although it was triggered by the dispute between Brunswick and MRRA. He said clarification hasn’t been needed up until now because the issue had not appeared in the other towns.
“I think this is the first time it has surfaced,” Gervais said.
Town Councilors Ben Tucker and John G. Richardson said if Kestrel is exempt from paying property taxes it will take away revenue needed by the community and shift the tax burden to homeowners and small businesses.
“It shows that at a time [when the state is] curtailing funding for schools, Gervais wants a tax break for luxury airplanes,” Tucker said.
Richardson — a former DECD commissioner — said state officials are forcing a tax on local property owners to fund the MRRA redevelopment without proper representation. “I thought we fought a Revolutionary War over the concept of taxation without representation,” he said.
Levesque said MRRA is not looking for a special tax break with the legislation, but instead, like Gervais, wants to see a consistent application of the law.
“The issue here is that most of the communities in the state apply the exemption — Brunswick doesn’t,” Levesque said. “All we’ve asked the governor’s office to do is to ask the Legislature if they want it exempt or if they don’t want it exempt.
“From our perspective, if the Legislature says no, we’re fine with that,” Levesque continued. “But to have one community exempt and another apply the tax, it creates a competitive disadvantage.”
Levesque said he doesn’t see how this exemption could shift the tax burden to citizens, because the town has yet to see — and will not see — property tax revenues from Brunswick Landing until this year, which will amount to $450,000.
Kestrel’s tax bill is $114,000 for the current fiscal year, or 25 percent of this year’s tax revenue, Levesque said.
“I think I talked about the fact that we’re generating new revenue for the town,” Levesque said. “With that revenue, the town has the prerogative to use that for school funding.”
For Tucker, the town’s issue with DECD’s legislation is not just about money, but also maintaining local representation for how decisions are made at Brunswick Landing — a reason Tucker is concerned about Gerzofsky’s proposed bill.
“I haven’t seen [Gerzofsky's] bill text, but I would expect he’s trying to block any town involvement with base redevelopment,” Tucker said, “because that’s what he’s been doing for years.”
Tucker said Gerzofsky has been known for blocking appointments of town officials to MRRA’s board, a position the town has sought since Brown wasn’t reappointed by Gov. John Baldacci in 2009.
“Over the years [Gerzofsky] has been deeply involved with trying to control appointments to the MRRA board,” Tucker said, “either by advocating for the town or others to nominate people or by opposing nominations that the town wants.”
Former Town Councilor Jacqueline Sartoris, vice chairwoman of the Brunswick Democratic Town Committee, agreed with Tucker’s assessment.
“At every opportunity, [Gerzofsky] has participated or has been the impetus to remove Brunswick’s opportunity for policymaking, oversight or public discussion,” Sartoris said.
Gerzofsky, who has served four terms in the House and is in his third term representing Senate District 10 — Brunswick, Harpswell, Freeport and Pownal — said he has opposed Brown serving on the MRRA board because the town manager’s employment by the Town Council creates a conflict of interest.
While Maine statute only prevents local elected officials from serving on the MRRA board, Gerzofsky sponsored legislation in 2011 that would have restricted employees of elected officials from serving on the MRRA board.
The bill ultimately was not passed, but Gerzofsky said he remains opposed to Brown’s reappointment, although he would not oppose nominating someone like John Eldridge, the town’s finance director.
Gerzofsky also said he wishes the councilors would put Brown’s failed reappointment and the question of who is in control behind them.
“If this is going to be about a turf battle, this isn’t going to benefit anybody,” he said. “They have to get over this issue and they have to focus on developing the base.”