BREWER, Maine — There were few empty parking spots outside — or empty seats inside — the Brewer Auditorium Thursday night as 12 members of the Maine Legislature gathered as part of a panel to hear public comment on Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed biennial state budget.
Approximately 200 people attended the Penobscot County Municipal Budget Forum and two dozen of them — some city and town officials and others ordinary citizens — had plenty to say about some of the proposed cost-cutting measures.
And none of it was supportive or positive.
“I’ve heard a lot of you talk about this tonight, but I’m reality and this is my life,” said a homeowner and Brewer resident at the end of the two-hour forum. “If these proposals go through, I will have to sell our house, and it’s paid for.”
The woman told the legislators about her 13-year-old daughter, who she has kept apprised of the ongoing state budget news, asking her if they would have to move.
“She wanted to know because if we do, she wants to make sure she takes a lot of photos to remind herself of what it was like,” the woman said, with her voice quaking slightly with emotion at times. “You people need to find a solution and do it quickly, or the state of Maine is going to lose a lot of people.”
This was the second public meeting on the proposed budget — which would drastically curtail or eliminate several primary sources of revenue for Maine’s towns and cities — Hampden Town Manager Susan Lessard has attended this week.
“The difference tonight was it was less formal, with people talking and everyone having a story, as opposed to more of a presentation-style event,” Lessard said.
Lessard was one of the two dozen people who addressed the assembled legislators representing the Greater Bangor area and five Eastern Maine counties (Penobscot, Washington, Piscataquis, Hancock and Waldo).
“I am not here to whine. I’m here with suggestions,” Lessard told the group. “This proposal is nothing but a recipe for disaster.”
LePage’s proposal includes the elimination of the municipal revenue-sharing program for two years; a flat funding system for kindergarten through 12th grade, with property taxpayers, for the first time in state history, paying 50 percent of teachers’ retirement premiums; the conversion of taxable property into tax-exempt property (BETR to BETE), with communities being reimbursed 50 percent of that lost tax revenue; the elimination of service center reimbursements to cities like Bangor, Portland, Lewiston and Auburn; and having excise and truck/trailer taxes go from towns and cities to the state.
“Instead of a chain saw, we may be better off using a scalpel,” Lessard added. “A better idea is to treat municipalities as the partners we are. We can develop a plan and work toward implementation over five years.”
Several legislators described the state’s current budget crisis and $700-800 million budget gap as self-inflicted.
“I see it as a result of taking federal dollars that wouldn’t last forever to expand services beyond our ability to provide them,” said state Sen. Ed Youngblood, R-Brewer.
Others put it more graphically.
“I would describe it as a knife through the heart,” said Roger Raymond, Hermon’s town manager. “I see this as the most vicious attack on municipalities in my career.”
As the top recipient of truck excise taxes among all Maine towns and cities, Hermon is projected to lose $4.9 million if the excise tax proposal is enacted.
“I would have to eliminate all our full-time and part-time employees and still not cover the loss in revenue,” Raymond said. “For a Hermon homeowner with a $200,000 home, they’d see a $468 increase in their property tax.”
Representatives of 10 Maine towns (Bangor, Bradley, Brewer, Bucksport, Hampden, Hermon, Millinocket, Old Town, Orono and Orrington) presented multiple hard copies of proposed state budget impact statements ranging from a high of $5,282,004 (Bangor) to a low of $125,100 (Bradley).
The main point the assembled legislators seemed to echo and agree on was a willingness to listen, even across party lines. They all emphasized communication and a need to have constituents contact them.
State Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono, said even Gov. LePage doesn’t like his budget proposals.
“I think, without having polled anyone up here already, that if the governor’s proposed budget was brought to a vote today, not a single person would vote for it,” said Cain. “And I see that as an opportunity, to have everyone in agreement to start and a different kind of conversation, across the aisle.”