It seems so long ago now – a contentious presidential election, political commercials at every break in our favorite television program, political signs fighting for our attention at every intersection.

And, what was her name?

Oh yeah, Carol Palesky.

As the snow undergoes its annual transformation into dirt and sand at the roadsides and local councils and school boards begin their difficult work on next year’s budget, it’s a name they shouldn’t forget.

Palesky, her cause and the fact that Maine has one of the highest tax burdens in the nation are, after all, the reasons Westbrook and Gorham schools are each receiving a little more than $2 million of additional money this year.

Gov. John Baldacci’s tax relief bill, which was passed by the Legislature earlier this year, suggested that 90 percent of that money should be returned to citizens in the form of property tax relief. Although the 90 percent guideline appears nowhere in the law, it was definitely part of the intent and a selling point.

Baldacci’s bill “guarantees 90 cents of every dollar of increased state education funding will be available for direct property tax relief for Maine citizens,” reads a press release on the proposal, which still appears on the governor’s Web site.

Another release on the Web site explains that the law did not direct 100 percent of the money at tax relief because “some of the increased state aid will pay for real increases in education costs.” The governor’s office based the 90 percent figure on the aggregate of money going to Maine schools, allowing for each community to make a decision based on its unique circumstances and the amount of money it received.

Westbrook and Gorham, however, received more money than most Maine communities. Therefore, that 10 percent is a larger amount of money. That should give these school departments more of an opportunity to return that money to taxpayers.

In September, Westbrook councilors also adopted a resolve unanimously to return to taxpayers 100 percent of any additional money the school got as a result of the passage of Question 1A.

Councilors and School Committee members in both communities are now facing proposed budgets with increases of about 5 percent. Those increases would be about twice the size of the spending cap included in the tax relief law the Legislature passed.

That’s why we urge the councilors and School Committee members in both communities to take a hard look at the proposed school budgets, find spending cuts that will bring these budgets in under the spending cap and return 90 percent of this money to taxpayers.

We understand that the school departments are facing rising costs every year for salaries and benefits of employees. But that’s true of any budget any year. Budgeting is never easy.

We also understand that the state tax relief law gives schools more money through a new formula – Essential Programs and Services – which requires certain amounts of money to be spent in certain areas. If that new formula detracts from money going to tax relief, School Committee members and school administrators ought to be able to explain exactly how much is required to be taken from tax relief and why.

Because if any of this money subsidizes additional expenses in the school budgets – rather than tax relief – it will serve to only worsen the problem of taxation in this state. Even though it’s coming from the state, it’s still tax money.

The state law passed to provide tax relief was far from perfect. But it was a start. Now it’s time for local government to follow through on what Augusta has started.

Brendan Moran, editor


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