BANGOR, Maine — While the fourth public meeting or forum in the last two weeks concerned the same hot-button topic — Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed biennial budget and its potential negative effects on local municipal budgets — this one had a different focus.
Wednesday night’s public municipal budget issues forum at the Bangor Civic Center drew about 50 citizens who were all invited to give their input, criticisms and especially suggestions before Bangor school and city officials begin their own departmental budget shaping work over the coming weeks.
“Well, this one was basically for us to listen. We wanted to hear from the public and we wanted to hear from the citizens of Bangor,” said Nelson Durgin, Bangor city councilor and acting mayor. “They looked at what we told them the problems were last week, and with a whole series of city budget meetings coming up involving every department and every staff member, we wanted every suggestion and idea we could get.”
If LePage’s proposals are all adopted into the biennial state budget, most towns’ and cities’ property taxes would likely have to be raised and services either reduced or cut altogether.
At least a dozen of the citizens in attendance had ideas and weren’t afraid to share them. They included:
• Instituting local option sales or use taxes in Bangor.
• More vigorous collection of outstanding property taxes and even foreclosing on delinquent taxpayers and selling the homes to recoup what Bangor Finance Director Debbie Cyr estimated to be about $1.5 million in overdue taxes.
• Selling Bangor Municipal Golf Course and/or the land it occupies, as well as other property owned but not developed by the city.
• Privatizing certain services, such as ambulance services.
• Renegotiating labor contracts with unions such as those representing the police and fire departments to cut back on labor costs and decreasing double time or enhanced payment assignments.
Assistant District Attorney Susan Pope suggested cutting ties and membership obligations or fees with Penobscot County government and governing bodies.
“Why do we have that? Do we even need that?” she asked, adding that city and state government may be more than enough to handle things.
A few people suggested consolidating services and/or city organizations.
Durgin pointed out that Bangor voters had a chance to save money by voting to transfer emergency dispatch services over to Penobscot Regional Communications Center — which the city is required to pay about $300,000 annually to support despite the fact it has its own city dispatch center — in 2011, but opted to stay with the current system.
“Trying to consolidate is one of the biggest problems we’ve had,” said Durgin. “But it’s an ongoing effort and we remain interested in looking for ways to make services and our bodies more efficient.”
Warren Caruso, a Bangor native and Husson University men’s basketball coach and director of development, said that rather than look only to cut services and personnel, it would be wise to remember the services and amenities that make Bangor a destination that still attracts many and that compromise and sacrifice will be required to get through the current budget crisis.
“I thought Warren Caruso’s comments about the city were good to hear and keep in mind,” Durgin said. “We do have some real success stories to talk about.”
Durgin offered a recent example of how Bangor is attractive for homeowners and business owners alike.
“I had a chance to spend about an hour with the owner of Five Guys Burgers & Fries and he just couldn’t say enough about how he was treated here, while at the same time having a hard time getting things up and running in Boston at the same time,” Durgin said. “He said he didn’t get any runaround from city hall, the Realtor was good to deal with, and he was able to get all his permits in a fairly short amount of time. He’s still waiting for permits with Boston.”
The next major local meeting concerning the budget proposals will take place at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer from 3 to 8 p.m. Monday, March 25. The public hearing on the proposed state budget will be attended by members of the state budget writing committee.