Biddeford Mayor Joanne Twomey was a big supporter of last fall’s $34 million bond referendum to renovate Biddeford High School, but she was always worried about the impact on taxpayers.

Twomey is a key supporter of a plan to provide some relief – a local version of the statewide “circuit breaker” rent and property tax rebate program. But opponents say the proposal is backed by such minimal funding that it does little good now – and could open the door to a much more expensive program in the future.

The proposal, which will go before the city council Wednesday, is modeled after the state’s rebate program, which has income limits to target the aid to middle- and lower-income homeowners and renters, and payments based on the percentage of income that goes to taxes or rent.

But the city has only provided $50,000 for a pool to pay out to residents who apply for the program.

Councilor Patricia Boston, who opposes the proposal, noted that more than 2,000 Biddeford residents got rebates from the state program last year. If most of them apply for the Biddeford circuit breaker, it would amount to only about $25 each – one-eighth of the roughly $200 higher tax bill that the owner of a $200,000 home will pay next year toward the high school bond.

Twomey said details of the proposal still have to be worked out, including how much of a payout applicants could get and whether the program will be first-come, first-served: once the pool is exhausted, rebates would no longer available.

The amount is less important than the fact that the city is trying to help people with their tax bills, she said.

“When you’re struggling to pay your bills, any bit helps,” Twomey said.

The extra cost from the high school bond will be a stretch for many homeowners, Twomey said. That’s why she decided to drop her opposition to a “racino” – slot machines and a harness racing track – that could result in Scarborough Downs moving to the city. Last month, the council agreed to put a referendum on that issue on the November ballot.

The racino and rebate plans, she said, would allow the city to lessen the impact of the bonds on taxpayers.

“I’m hoping it helps the neediest,” she said. “It’s a trial and it’s something I believe in.”

But Boston said it’s a trial without any real goal. She said the council has never set out what it hopes to accomplish with only $50,000 to spread around to – potentially – thousands of homeowners and renters.

“If we don’t know what we’re targeting, I don’t know how we can measure whether it’s a success,” she said.

Local circuit breakers aren’t exactly popular in the state, said Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association.

Conrad said the MMA found only one instance of another local circuit breaker, in Aroostook County. He also noted that there are other options for tax relief – the state Legislature recently gave towns and cities two new tools to use to try to ease the burden of property taxes, both aimed at senior citizens.

One measure allows towns to waive part of a tax bill for senior citizens who agree to provide volunteer hours to the town in return, and another allows senior citizens to defer taxes until a home is sold or the taxpayer dies. Both measures require the towns to agree to the programs, something the MMA pushed for because of the costs to local governments, Conrad said.

“The bottom line is they’re trying to be creative to help homeowners,” he said.

Boston thinks those programs deserve a look, more than a local circuit breaker, especially if the measure’s supporters plan on adding more money to the pool next year. And, she believes there’s a better approach to tax relief.

“It’s feel-good legislation,” she said of the circuit breaker plan. “I think we’d be better-served to work on reducing the tax rate for everybody.”

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]