Pragmatism, compromise of budget talks

Norway Town Manager David Holt is a pragmatist. Always has been, and it’s a trait he’s putting to good use while staring at the possibility of significantly reduced revenue sharing under Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposal for the coming biennium. If LePage’s plan to s...Norway Town Manager David Holt is a pragmatist. Always has been, and it’s a trait he’s putting to good use while staring at the possibility of significantly reduced revenue sharing under Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposal for the coming biennium.

If LePage’s plan to suspend municipal revenue sharing across the state for the next two years is passed, Norway stands to lose $250,000 annually. Throw in the potential loss of state reimbursement of $113,472 for the Homestead Exemption and $80,000 for personal property taxes, and this town of some 5,000 people may have to absorb cuts of $443,472, or 16 percent of its current spending.

That’s the worst-case scenario on the municipal side, without considering this year’s $285,177 projected increase to Norway’s share of SAD 17 funding, a massive number piled on top of a $278,267 increase Norway grappled with last year.

And, this, in a town where incomes are 72 percent of the average family income in Maine.

The total impact of lost state revenue and increased school costs on Norway taxpayers — if the town’s budget remains stable — could be an increase in local expenditures of $728,649.

That’s going to hurt.

The governor’s proposed budget must first get legislative approval — it is facing extreme opposition and is being slowed by the more immediate impasse to close an estimated $118 million in the state’s current budget — so the loss to municipalities could be less.

But, as Holt knows, it’s best to plan for the worst-case scenario, so he’s asked his department heads to construct two budgets, one assuming LePage’s plan passes and another assuming the proposal fails.

Holt is not happy about this course of action because he believes towns are being asked to “do too much,” but he told the Sun Journal “I don’t think whining is appropriate.”

He’s right. It’s not. In the real world, whining never accomplishes a thing.

Holt is standing tall, and asking his employees to do the same, as are thousands of municipal managers and employees across the state.

Crafting right-sized budgets hasn’t been easy for Maine’s towns for several years, and as we approach the 2013-14 fiscal budget drafting cycle we could be looking at the toughest year yet.

In Jay, selectmen are wrestling with the question of buying a new plow truck or refurbishing an 11-year-old truck that, when refurbished, will “still be an old truck,” according to Town Manager Ruth Cushman, that will need continued attention.

There is also talk of replacing a decade-old pickup truck used for buildings and grounds, a truck that is unlikely to pass another inspection without some serious work.

This is the conflict that towns — and the state — are facing: Just because budgets are being reduced doesn’t mean operational costs will follow. Some things, like equipment repairs, paving, emergency response services, employee salaries, audits and other necessities cannot be reduced by the amounts towns are now facing without a serious roll-back of services that citizens have become accustomed to.

In Auburn, some years ago, in response to a plea from taxpayers to control costs, the Public Works Department revised its street-plowing priorities, leaving some residential streets unpaved for hours after major storms.

While discussing the potential cutbacks, taxpayers supported the change. Then, when the snow fell, the complaints were fast and loud. We, as a people, want to maintain services and also reduce costs.

That’s just not possible.

Something has to give, and Holt predicts Norway and other towns will face “significant cuts in services and large increases in taxes, all in the same year.”

In Canton, sensitive to taxpayer worry about rising taxes, Fire Department officials have developed a plan to purchase a used — instead of new — much-needed fire truck using existing reserve funds to pay for the equipment. Members of the fire department are hosting an open house at the station Wednesday, from 6 to 9 p.m., to make their case directly to taxpayers before selectmen take up the request on Thursday.

This is a compromise that weighs need against available resources, ensuring required firefighting equipment while trying to tread more lightly on taxpayers’wallets.

That’s the approach Maine — at the state level and on down through to each school district and municipality — is going to have to take. One of compromise and pragmatism.

Watch Holt.

He’s leading the way.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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Comments

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

David Holt has been around

David Holt has been around the barn a few times. If he can't handle this situation, no one can. I'm betting he will.

Steve  Dosh's picture

Pragmatism, compromise of budget talks

ed., 13.02.12 09:30 am - ish
Most excellent analysis . ..
. . We believe that ' compromise ' is not in your Governor's vocabulary
' Pragmatism ' may very well be ? 
Now go through his 2 0 1 2 tax returns , someone
Your A G will provide them
North Korea nuclear mis-takes , the Pope , and a certain upcoming speech are on the immediate horizon [ right now ]
God Jul *<;-Q~ /s , a squarehead named Steve

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