RUMFORD — Wednesday night's large crowd at The Concerned Rumford Taxpayers Group meeting was an unexpected bonus for organizers.
Co-organizer Phil Zinck said he and fellow organizer Mark Belanger decided last Thursday to convene the gathering to educate residents about the need for tax relief.
"I'm extremely happy" with the turnout, Belanger, a former Rumford selectman and self-employed builder, said after the nearly 90-minute meeting upstairs at Sam's Italian Shop. "I thought maybe 30 (would come), but there must be what, 80 people here? It's awesome."
Belanger introduced a Rumford Citizen Petition labeled "Tax Relief" that seeks to create an ordinance to cap the property tax levy at $17.5 for each fiscal year starting July 1, 2013. The current tax rate is $24.25 per $1,000 of valuation.
"Given the financial burden of high property taxes on businesses and homeowners in the town of Rumford, we, the undersigned, believe that a critical circumstance exists," Belanger said, reading from the petition.
The document requests that selectmen convene a special town meeting to vote on the ordinance. Section 1 of the ordinance states that the capped levy cannot exceed 100 percent valuation on property — both real and personal — unless allowed in the proposed ordinance. It is to take effect on passage.
The section also states that during fiscal year 2014 and in each fiscal year thereafter, Rumford shall not increase its property tax levy more than 2 percent in excess of the total amount levied and certified by the town for its previous fiscal year.
It lists a series of exceptions to the tax limits, such as significant natural disasters, large cost increases for health insurance and debt service spending.
As the petition was passed around for signatures, Belanger said he believes the future of Rumford will be decided at the polls.
He said the petition has nothing to do with Rumford Paper Company's recent efforts to provide the mill with property tax relief.
But it does relate to the possibility that the mill could be shut down if it doesn't improve its financial performance over last year, former Rumford Town Manager Len Greaney said.
"If that mill goes out, where's Rumford going to be?" Belanger asked. "I mean, you can put in a gazillion zip lines, and it ain't going to do it. It's going to have a tsunami effect, a ripple effect on this whole area."
Belanger sees a much lower tax rate as a method to grow economic development. He, Zinck and several others said Rumford needs to regionalize to become more efficient and reduce costs.
Others took it a step further and said the town needs to merge with Mexico, and that the school systems in the River Valley area need to merge into one school to reduce administrators and teachers.
Many people simply came to vent.
"Rumford is being rated as a poor investment because of high taxes," Zinck said of his conversations with Realtors.
Greaney said when he helmed the town the tax rate was $19.60, but as he was leaving, he knew it was going to rise due to a tax cut given to Brookfield Power and the mill.
While he calls the proposed tax levy cap of $17.50 crazy, he believes it can be done.
One man said he's all for a tax cap because he's been trying to buy a house in town but can't afford it due to the tax rate. Another man said he hasn't been able to sell his house for four years because people don't want to move to Rumford due to high taxes.
Zinck said the tax rate is much lower in Norway and Paris than it is in Rumford.
"It's scary times," he said. "I think more people are pissed off about their taxes."
One man said, "It's time to stop the 'gravy train'" of high budgets.
Kelly Gorham said drastic action is needed to reduce budgets. He said the town needs "to get out the wrecking ball."
Jim Barnett, a local businessman and ardent champion of lower taxes at selectmen meetings, vented about education costs and life without the paper mill.
"I'm educating my daughter at Husson College for less than we're uneducating kids here," Barnet said. "The second largest employer when that mill closes is going to be welfare."