Selectmen to state: Don’t shift shortfalls to towns

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton Selectmen on Tuesday agreed to send a strongly worded appeal to county and state elected officials saying they need to avoid shifting state budget shortfalls onto local taxpayers, lest they have Bridgton “rethink our relationship with our state government.”

The letter, dated Dec. 30, challenged state senators and representatives in the Lake Region, along with those in Oxford and Androscoggin Counties, to not fall prey to pressures to reduce traditional revenue sources that towns rely on in preparing their annual budgets. The letter, drafted by Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz at the board’s request, cites three well-established revenue sources: the Municipal Revenue Sharing Program (MRS), Urban and Rural Initiative Program (URIP) and state education funding, more recently known as Essential Programs and Services (EPS) funds.

“The bottom line for Bridgton is that established statutes, relationships and partnerships with the state must not end, nor can we afford to assume expenses that have originally been within the obligation and purview of the state,” the letter states.

The letter was approved and signed by the five-member board and Berkowitz at Tuesday’s selectmen meeting. It expresses the concern that changes may be on the horizon in those longstanding funding relationships, borne of “an emerging attitude of the current administration” of Maine Gov. Paul LePage. If changes are made, the letter states that, “such actions would be construed as a fractured and mediocre approach to Maine’s future and the quality of life in our municipalities.” Further, states the letter, they would reflect a trend by the state to “dilute, dissolve or dismember the statutes that municipal officials and state officials have respected and honored for decades.”

Revenue sharing

In terms of revenue sharing, which the letter refers to as “a key element in how municipalities budget and reduce the local tax burden,” the concern is that “you will be pressured into revisiting the mechanics of the MRS” as a way to make up state revenue shortfalls. The program, the letter notes, dates back to the early 1970s, when the Legislature decided to distribute 5% of all sales and income taxes to towns. In return, the towns agreed to no longer levy taxes on the value of inventory, such as logs in wood yards and other retail-related inventory.

State aid for roads

The letter said reimbursements from the URIP program, by which the state reimburses towns for handling certain elements of road maintenance on state-classified roads, “are not keeping pace with the costs for maintaining a mile of road.” As a result, towns have had to increasingly tap into capital improvement funds that might have gone elsewhere in order maintain roads.

“We do not believe it is in the best interest of our state to place the added burden of continued maintenance of these class of roads onto the local taxpayers, who are already supporting a responsible local capital improvement program and schedule,” the letter states.

State aid to education

The letter bemoans a state pattern of “tweaking” the formula by which the state has agreed to fund 55% of local education costs. The continual cycle of underfunding for education, the letter states, is perhaps the most egregious example of shortfall-shifting, and ultimately leads to graduates less capable of making a difference in growing the state’s manufacturing, technology and trades sectors.

“Without the appropriate state support for education, we are doomed to repeat and endure economic lackluster performance instead of a vibrant state economy through a competitive workforce at all levels,” the letter states. Shifting more of the education burden on taxpayers, the letter states, often comes “at the expense of their own monthly housing payments, food, medical needs and quality of life.”

At their meeting Dec. 11, selectmen said Bridgton is particularly affected by state revenue cuts because it is a local service center, and as such has more infrastructure obligations and other services it must provide. Selectmen especially wanted county and state officials to know that, as a service center, Bridgton relies on state agencies such as the Fire Marshal’s office, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health and Human Services to help them when the need arises, and “we have reservations that these (agencies) will remain intact at the state level.” Of particular concern are the needs of the fire chief to get state help with arson investigations, and the code enforcement officer to get help with inspecting neglected housing units or suspected safety violations in commercial buildings.

“As 2013 begins, we challenge you to make history that will demonstrate the leadership qualities of a forward thinking body, and not a recording or playback of the last several years,” the letter states. “Will you help us and our state to move forward or should we rethink our relationship with our state government?”

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