Proposed state funding cuts draw region’s educators, politicians to Hampden meeting

Posted March 04, 2013, at 11:11 p.m.
Last modified March 05, 2013, at 4:37 a.m.

HAMPDEN, Maine — Monday’s event wasn’t called a conference; organizers preferred to emphasize an exchange of information and ideas. Whatever its official name was, attendees and planners alike were calling it both worthwhile and a success.

It’s official name was “An Evening for Leadership” and it was organized by the Penobscot River Educational Partnership, an organization focused on helping students, kindergarten through grade 12, by improving teaching and educational experiences.

The main topic, and reason for the event, was the proposed biennial state budget and the effect some of its changes and cuts could have on towns and cities, big and small.

“We wanted to get everybody the same information from the same people,” PREP Director Owen Maurais said. “It didn’t come from the school districts or the towns. First, we wanted to use the same information and reality here they have at the state house.

“The second goal was to convey it in a meaningful way and that’s why we had people from different size towns and school systems make presentations.”

Judging by the comments and reactions from some of the 200 to 250 participants who spent more than two hours at Hampden Academy’s performing arts center Monday night, the mission was accomplished.

“We’re trying to educate our legislative delegation on the impacts on small and large municipalities,” Bangor City Manager Cathy Conlow said. “It’s huge, and I think this was very successful.”

Geoff Herman, director of state and federal relations for the Maine Municipal Association, presented attendees with the a broad overview of Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget while also addressing specific points and how certain changes will likely affect municipalities.

“Governor LePage released a budget with five components that directly and negatively affect local municipalities and school systems, and two more components that affect taxpayers,” Herman said.

Herman said the first five, in order of impact, are:

  1. The elimination of the municipal revenue-sharing program for two years.
  2. A flat funding system for kindergarten through 12th grade, but, for first time in state history, property taxpayers would have to pay 50 percent of teachers’ retirement premiums.
  3. The conversion of $3 billion in taxable property into tax-exempt property (BETR to BETE) with communities being reimbursed 50 percent of that lost tax revenue.
  4. Service center reimbursements to cities like Bangor, Portland, Lewiston and Auburn would be eliminated.
  5. Taking excise and truck/trailer taxes from towns and cities and giving it to the state.

Herman said the total hit from those five proposals to municipalities is projected at $334 million.

“How did we get here today? A lot of it is entitlement spending,” said Jonathan Nass, Gov. Lepage’s senior policy advisor. “Mandates from the federal government stayed after funding dried up, and we’re $400 million in debt as a result.”

Nass said to pay that debt, three areas were looked at: education, welfare and revenue-sharing programs.

The other two proposals that could affect taxpayers directly involve the elimination of the homestead tax exemption and cutting or restricting the state’s circuit breaker program for low-income renters and mortgage holders.

“The difficult part of the proposed budget as proposed is that it either greatly decimates or eliminates many of the funding streams that have been state and local partnerships, and it also takes revenue sources — like excise taxes — that have always been local, and turns it over to the state,” said Susan Lessard, Hampden town manager.

Representatives from three Maine municipalities — Bangor, Bucksport and Guilford — talked about what the proposed budget would mean to their areas. It would mean annual property tax increases of $231, $188 and $156 for owners of homes valued at $100,000 in Bangor, Bucksport, and Guilford, respectively.

“I am a Republican and conservative, like LePage, but I do take exception to some of his decisions and methods,” Guilford Town Manager Tom Goulette said.

All attendees and presenters broke into groups afterward and discussed not only problems, but potential solutions with their local school officials, civic leaders, and political representatives.

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