LEWISTON — Following the mayoral debate earlier this week, candidate Ben Chin is defending his tax-assistance proposals, which his opponent Shane Bouchard claimed are illegal.
Chin has put forward targeted plans aimed at offsetting the tax burden that many are facing, including a property tax rebate for seniors, an exemption from the city’s stormwater utility fee — known as the “rain tax” — for homeowners, and trash pickup for qualifying landlords.
Bouchard emphatically told the debate audience Monday that Chin’s plans are illegal, but Chin disagreed. City officials declined to give a formal opinion this week.
The differences between the two candidates have mostly mirrored political ideologies — Chin is a progressive; Bouchard a conservative — but Chin’s tax fairness proposals have received the most attention from Bouchard.
Chin said he’s surprised that the conservative candidate has been so outspoken against what he calls “common-sense” proposals. Over the past few weeks, he’s posted his ideas on various social media sites to gain feedback.
The funding for Chin’s tax- assistance plans depends on Lewiston receiving an additional state subsidy similar to what it received this year. While the subsidy must be used to lower the schools’ portion of the property tax rate, Chin said his programs would be added to the city portion of the budget, in theory leading to the same overall tax rate.
On Wednesday, Chin said the move would “create new resources that you then use to lower taxes and fees for other things.”
Bouchard said Wednesday that Chin’s “lack of knowledge of city government is downright dangerous.”
He said Chin’s rebate for seniors and rain tax proposals are illegal based on singling out certain groups of people. Bouchard said enterprise accounts, which fund the water and sewer divisions, “prohibit exempting any one group from such fees.”
Chin disagreed, saying that if property tax assistance is formulated as a rebate, the plan for seniors would pass muster, and that creating an exemption for the stormwater fee could also be done legally.
“If you’re paying property taxes, this should be part of the deal,” he said, referring to the stormwater fee, which charges single-family homes and duplexes a flat rate for stormwater runoff. Larger institutions such as hospitals pay fees based on their individual stormwater impact.
Chin’s trash pickup plan would depend on the implementation of a rental registration program. Chin said that when he talks to small-scale landlords, many tell him the cost of trash pickup is burdensome. Those who join the registry and do not have health or safety violations at their properties would receive the free trash pickup under Chin’s proposal.
Bouchard said the cost of the trash pickup would most likely use all the funding in Chin’s proposal. On top of that, he said, there’s no guarantee that the city will receive the additional education subsidy next year.
City Administrator Ed Barrett declined to give a formal opinion on Chin’s proposals Wednesday, but he said Chin’s overall plan is a “possibility.”
He said in theory, Chin’s plan relies on the extra state subsidy to lower the schools’ portion of the tax rate, which means the city’s portion has room to go up and still keep the overall tax rate level. But he said the School Department’s tax rate can only go down so far without being in violation of what’s known as the “required local share.” He said it would also depend on “what else is in play during that budget year.”
Barrett said an attorney would likely have to take a look at Chin’s plans to offer a property tax rebate for seniors and a rain tax exemption for individual homeowners. He noted that there are currently ways some residents can get discounts on the rain tax.
The trash pickup proposal, Barrett said, “could be done.”
This spring, Lewiston received $2.15 million in additional state subsidy funds directed toward education. Chin said he spoke with Barrett and Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster about what they might receive next year, and said both estimated between $1.5 and $2 million.
Asked how he would make the programs work if Lewiston does not receive the same amount of funding next year, Chin said he’d choose one or two of the proposals to stick with — most likely the rebate for seniors.
He also admitted that the decisions would ultimately be up to the new City Council.
“The big-picture goal for me putting this out there was, ‘Let’s just not go on auto-pilot,'” he said. “It could be an opportunity to make some real progress on things that people say they want year after year, and we should at least have the conversation.”
Mayoral candidates Shane Bouchard, left, and Ben Chin. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)