February 10, 2013

Dan Demeritt: LePage in his element with plan to halt municipal revenue sharing

He's passionate about his belief that taxes are too high because we have too much government – and government redundancy.

An analysis by the Maine Municipal Association reports that Gov. LePage's budget proposal would strip Maine's cities, towns and property taxpayers of $420 million over the next two years. A spokesman with the group suggests the spending plan reflects a "broken trust."

Mayor Michael Brennan of Portland states that there has "never been anything as radical or far-reaching" as the governor's plan to temporarily suspend $200 million in municipal revenue sharing.

And seemingly everywhere town managers are doing the math and letting local residents know how much the property tax rate will go up if LePage's plan goes through.

The drumbeats and pronouncements point to an all-out political war over the issue of taxes, spending, and the future of our cities and towns.

My money is on the governor.

While he often defies expectations, Paul LePage is not a complicated a guy. The governor's values and goals are tied closely to his personal life experiences, providing unrelenting resolve and, when harnessed effectively, a passion that is extremely compelling.

Education saved LePage from the streets and jail. He wants to see every kid get a similar opportunity for advancement through our schools. When I watch LePage talk about education, I see the elected embodiment of every parent who ever set off for a parent-teacher conference convinced his or her kid was not getting a fair shake in school.

Voters see it too. They have the same kind of understanding and appreciation for the leadership that LePage, a victim himself as a child, is providing on domestic violence.

LePage is also in his policy and political element when it comes to taxation, spending and municipal government. As the general manager of Mardens, LePage knew his customers did not care about efficiencies of scale, payroll, fixed costs or capital investments. They cared about selection, quality and a price on the tag that was lower than what they could find at Walmart. Mardens delivered. Even on snow days.

LePage's mayoral office in Waterville was less than five miles from the Winslow, Fairfield and Oakland municipal buildings. The collective population of the four communities is about the same as Lewiston's. The governor knows that the taxpayers across these four municipalities sustain service and administrative redundancies that have no discernible impact on the quality of local services, education or place. The roads need to be plowed but, for most taxpayers, it matters not at all where the plow truck is parked at the end of the day.

Over the course of the budget debate and in the run-up to the 2014 elections, LePage will give voice to the taxpayers across Maine who believe our taxes are higher than they should be because we sustain far more government than we need.

One local leader who agrees that we have much to accomplish in the areas of consolidation and efficiencies is Mayor Jonathan LaBonte of Auburn. LaBonte has some transformational ideas and the political courage to speak his mind.

LaBonte recently met with LePage to talk about opportunities that exist in his community to deliver services more efficiently. He told the governor about a 2009 report from the Citizens Commission on Lewiston-Auburn Cooperation that details $2.7 million in annul savings the cities can achieve through consolidation.

LaBonte makes the case that revenue sharing should be a temporary resource that communities can use to finance investments in consolidation and efficiencies. The mayor also believes that the property tax is an antiquated revenue source that prompts Maine communities to compete with each other rather than work as a competitive bloc to better compete in the global marketplace.

He is absolutely right. The decisions we make about how and where we deliver local services have a very real impact on our tax burden. In the city of Hallowell, for example, community leaders currently are considering three options for how the city will provide fire protection for the community. Its choices are reflective of the challenges, traditions and opportunities presented by our system of local control.

Hallowell, which has a volunteer department today, is considering building its own new station. A second option is a cooperative station with neighboring Farmingdale. Alternatively, Hallowell could contract for services through Augusta's full-time, professional fire department.

All three options present roughly the same annual expense, but I prefer the plan to contract through Augusta because it eliminates the capital costs of a new building and provides the protection of a professional full-time fire department.

Of course my preference does not count because I do not live in Hallowell.

The cost of the decision, however, could be borne in small part by us all thanks to revenue sharing and other state-funded property tax programs.

LePage says in fiscally challenging times like these, costly local decisions should be paid for locally. From my house in Sidney, two municipalities removed from Hallowell's tax assessor, the governor's reasoning makes sense to me.

Dan Demeritt is a Republican political consultant and public relations specialist. He is a former campaign aide and communications director for Gov. Paul LePage. He can be contacted at:

dan@win207.com

Twitter: @demerittdan

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