HOULTON, Maine — Town Councilors acknowledged on Monday evening that they have received significant complaints from taxpayers over the past two weeks who have opened up their property tax bills and seen a substantial increase.
With the group already thinking about next year’s budget, several councilors said that the town will have to find additional sources of revenue or make some “tough cuts” in the year ahead.
Town Manager Gene Conlogue said Wednesday that some residents have already started paying their property tax bills, after the tax assessor’s office mailed them out earlier this month. The tax rate jumped 1.8 mills to $21.75 per $1,000 of valuation. The tax rate, which was set at 18.45 mills in 2010, rose to 18.95 mills in 2011 and has crept up steadily since.
“People are not happy, their taxes went up a lot ,” Councilor Dan Peabody acknowledged during the meeting. He said that the group will face difficult challenges when they start planning the budget in the fall.
Councilor John White agreed, saying that he has fielded complaints from residents and seen criticisms posted on social media sites.
“We need to find more revenue and if we can’t, we need to make tough cuts,” he said, “Other towns are making those cuts. Businesses are not going to come here if the taxes keep going up and people are saying they are going to move.”
White cited Presque Isle as an example of a community that has made difficult cutbacks, including when the city council voted unanimously in June to shut down the more than 80-year-old outdoor pool because the city could no longer afford to operate it safely. The facility needs an estimated $500,000 in repairs, and the Presque Isle council voted to close the site, even though its a popular spot for children and families to go swimming in the summer. The city still operates a public indoor pool.
Conlogue said Wednesday that several factors contributed to the overall budget increase, including reduced revenues from the state and Houlton’s share of the RSU 29 school budget.
The $12.6 million budget for the school district, which also serves Hammond, Littleton and Monticello, was up 1.36 percent from the previous year. Just 227 people voted on the budget, a fact that frustrated several councilors and community members.
“That was one of the largest parts of the budget, but very few people even turned out to vote on it,” Conlogue said.
The current $9.4 million municipal budget represents a $117,497 increase over 2012, mainly due to a 2 percent salary increase for town employees.
Houlton resident Phil Bernaiche complained at Monday’s meeting about the tax increase. He said he felt that the town was spending too much money that the taxpayers could not afford to give.
“You have to learn not to spend so much,” he said. “Things have to change.”