RAYMOND – Over the next few weeks Maine voters will be deluged with radio and TV commercials, print media, direct mailings and Internet contacts touting the advantages or dire consequences associated with a host of statewide referenda.

Along with this barrage of pre-Nov. 8 campaigning, Cumberland County taxpayers can add the long-planned final push to convince us that spending nearly $50 million over 25 years on renovating the Cumberland County Civic Center is, in the words of Cumberland County Commission Chair and former Portland mayor Jim Cloutier, “vital to our economy, improves our quality of life and assures the future of entertainment in Cumberland County.”

I respectfully disagree. Taxpayers have given the civic center more than 30 years to get it right and we’re still waiting.

This is not to say that the civic center has been mismanaged. On the contrary, the building is well-run and remains in good repair.

The core issue, after years of county life support and subsidies, is that it’s time for government to exit the entertainment business and return to governing.

Law enforcement, emergency management, the court system and jails provide real quality of life and security to our citizens. These are primary responsibilities of county government — not hotdogs and hockey.

Citizens, exhausted with bailout fatigue, who voiced concern over this ill-advised extension of public debt and its “vital” economic impact outside the Portland area are dismissed as “just plain wrong.”

Despite not being armed with any statistical data, we are told the “trickle-down” effect is substantial. We have been “trickled” on before and we can’t take any more.

The primary argument in defense of the renovation has been by doing nothing the civic center will deteriorate and become, in the words of trustee chairman Neal Pratt, “an albatross” costing taxpayers more money in the end.

On many occasions I questioned the extent of efforts to examine other options.

Can we sell the building? Can we give it to the city of Portland, which donated the prime 4-acre parcel in the first place? Have we actively marketed the property, locally and nationally, to determine interest and value?

Each time there was a less than robust response to my queries.

There could be possible legal issues with the city’s gift. Some internal discussions were held at one time. Demolition costs, again undocumented, could be in the millions.

I pressed Pratt on this question at the Raymond Selectmen’s board meeting, chaired by Joe Bruno, Raymond selectman and civic center trustee, on Oct. 11.

What is the appraised value of the land and building? The center is a government-owned building and may not have an assessed value, but basic due diligence requires both figures.

To my surprise, Pratt could not give me the answer. He did not know.

Try getting a personal home improvement loan without an appraisal! It is apparent that no other options were examined by the trustees, task force or building committee, which was dominated by former Portland mayors, city managers and finance directors. No hard data was collected or serious studies conducted.

The facts are these. The civic center costs us money, $600,000 in the county budget alone. This is true now and will be the case in the future.

There is no sound documentation that the center is “vitally” important to the economic health of the outlying communities.

The Augusta and Bangor civic centers are owned by the cities, not the counties.

Continuing the tax burden on the less fortunate in our county, whether in Portland, Westbrook or Raymond, in these tough financial times is what is really “just plain wrong.”

Assuring entertainment in Cumberland County or anywhere else is not the business of government and is better left to the private sector. The State Theatre revival and the planned Thompson’s Point project are recent examples.

Think of what else we could do with this $50 million investment. Or better yet, how about some tax relief as we have done in Raymond in the last two budgets?

We will soon be flooded by an onslaught of commercials funded by former city manager and civic center trustee John Menario’s “Citizens for a Modern Civic Center” $85,000 political action committee. Some $35,000 came from the civic center trustees.

Please resist! Renovating the civic center is not a good or bad idea, just not the best idea. Send this proposal back for a better idea by voting “no.”

The taxpayer deserves no less.

– Special to the Press Herald