Media Archive

County towns fear Palesky

Article from The Piscataquis Observer, Vol. 166, No. 43, October 27, 2004

By Fran Emmons
Special to the Observer

Question No. 1 on the Nov. 2 ballot - the Palesky Initiative, which would cap local property taxes at 1 percent of assessed valuation or 10 mils has great appeal to many citizens in Piscataquis County. After all, the county is rated second only to Washington County in lowest per capita income while its property tax valuations soar with out-of-state investment.

Furthermore, Piscataquis is a rural county and its towns, for the most part, isolated. Municipalities bear heavier burdens here providing essential public safety and community services than communities in more metropolitan areas that can share.

The mil rate in many Piscataquis towns is $20 or more. That means, on $100,000 of assessed property value, the owner has an annual tax bill of $2,000. If Question No. 1 passes, that bill would be cut in half, and when incomes are below poverty level or fixed, saving $1,000 is a big deal.

However, there is a property of physics stating that for every action there is a reaction. And town officials across the board, while sympathetic with their residents concerns over rising taxes, fear that reaction.

In Brownville, voters turned out for a special town meeting Monday night and gambled on a better future by voting to underwrite a business and industrial park project with neighboring Milo. If the Palesky cap passes, that project will die before it is even bom, Brownville Town Manager Sophie Wilson said. In fact, "Brownville as we know it will cease to exist," Wilson told the group. With a 52.5 percent loss in property tax revenue based on current valuations, the town would be short $76,000 in its current legal obligations, such as school, county tax, and debt service, before even considering community and public safety services, she said.

Most towns have passed resolutions against the tax cap at their council or select board level, including Greenville, Monson, Guilford, Brownville, Milo, Dover-Foxcroft and Dexter. All paint bleak pictures shouldthe initiative be voted in.

In Dexter, Town Manager Bob Simpson predicts the town will lose $1.2 million in revenue, causing it to eliminate 23 of 44 municipal jobs and is on the record saying the cap "will be a disaster for a community that's still attempting to recover from the 2001 closure of Dexter Shoe."

Guilford will lose $446,967 in revenue, according to Town Manager Tom Goulette, and after meeting its legal obligations, would have a mere $17,346 remaining for all municipal services.

The mil rate is 19.86 in Dover-Foxcroft at present. The town would lose $1,878,164 in tax revenue, leaving it well short of the 12.17 mils needed to meet the school and county obligations alone. Town Manager Jack Clukey said.

"Many have accused us of fear-mongering, but no one has explained how we are going to meet our legal obligations," Milo's Town Manager Jane Jones said. Milo would be "$30,000 in the red before meeting outside commitments," she explained.

Services would not vanish altogether, town administrators acknowledge. They would however change. Instead of being local, they would become the responsibility, in some form, of the county or the state. Towns could no longer choose what service they want, the delivery of that service, and how much that service would cost, officials advise.

The loss of local control is significant, according to many. The town meeting form of government is in jeopardy, Brownville's Wilson charged, because "the tax cap initiative seeks to remove this power of choice form local communities and give it to Augusta."

The initiative "will strip away an element of 'home rule' authority that is a historical keystone of government in Maine," Dexter's Simpson said.

Sensitive to their citizen's frustration with ever-rising taxes, most municipalities backed last year's successful referendum that requires the state to ante up the full 55 percent in school funding as legislated. If towns receive more money from the state for schools, those funds can directly offset property tax requirements.

Dover-Foxcroft's resolution to oppose the Palesky cap is specific, citing a need to "press for a speedy implementation" of the state's obligation to fully fund the 55 percent for schools and to ensure that with implementation the result will be to reduce "property taxes and not...increase...municipal or school spending."

Tax reform is crucial, town officials unanimously agree, but the sole target should not be the municipalities.

"It is very easy to understand the frustration of the taxpayers, but this anger needs to be channeled toward the ineffective legislature, not municipal government," Goulette said.

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.