Lisbon taxpayers demand answers

LISBON — The budget process was a mess from the start.

Mark LaFlamme

Lisbon taxpayers filled the room at City Hall Friday to air their complaints about recent tax bills.

Mark LaFlamme

Lisbon town councilors address complaints from taxpayers at a special meeting Friday night.

Mark LaFlamme

Lisbon town councilors address complaints from taxpayers at a special meeting Friday night.

There were problems with software updates. The town’s computer guy left under bizarre circumstances. Town officials were late getting tax bills out in the first place and then there was an unexpected twist — a major devaluation of property was discovered and it would dramatically affect the amount of taxes people were expected to pay.

The bills went in the mail anyway. Outrage soon followed.

On Friday night, dozens of townspeople clutched those bills in white knuckles at the Town Office. They crowded Town Council chambers and spilled into hallways.

They did not want to hear excuses.

“We got our bills in the mail,” hollered Camille Booker, one of the lucky ones who came early enough to get a chair. “And we got a $500 whack to the head.”

While the tax rate actually decreased this year — from $25.50 to $21.60 — the town brought up its valuation, which lifted the value of some properties and increased those tax bills.

At the front of the room, Town Manager Stephen Eldridge tried to explain. He had hired a consultant to look over the work of the town assessor, he said. Flaws were found in methods used by the assessor.

The crowd wasn’t buying it. Every time Eldridge tried to point a finger of blame, there were dozens of fingers pointing back.

It wasn’t just the 100 or so residents who had come to demand answers. Town councilors lambasted Eldridge, too. When the unexpected devaluation was discovered, they said, Eldridge never informed them. Councilors said they were as surprised as anyone when they got their bills.

“I’m embarrassed to sit here and tell you I didn’t know what was going on,” said Gina Mason, vice chairwoman of the council.

Eldridge tried to defend himself. He gave them the numbers and explained the budgetary process. He was not required, he insisted, to inform each councilor of every new development.

Sighs and moans followed. Some stepped up to a podium to air their complaints, others just shouted from their chairs or from the hallway.

“All of this bullcrap could have been avoided,” said Matt Eaton, who stood with a throng of others in the doorway, “if communication had been proper.”

Roger Cote, a councilor at the center of the controversy in recent days, agreed heartily with that assessment. By keeping the councilors out of the process, he said, Eldridge had eliminated any chance there might have been to make adjustments, to keep tax bills down.

Applause from the crowd. More grumbling and calls for Eldridge to be booted from his position.

“We’ve got to bring in people who are competent,” Cote said, “and get rid of people who are not.”

It was Cote who caused a stir earlier in the week by advising residents not to pay their tax bills. At the meeting Friday, he was unrepentant about that move.

“This is what I had to do,” he said. “I hope something comes out of it to change the direction of this town.”

Others complained that the valuation process was fraudulent. How could the value of his home be raised, one man demanded to know, when no one had visited to examine his house and property?

Residents are being forced to bear the burden of the town’s financial woes, several complained. The town budget was up 3 percent this year. Perhaps it was time to make cuts to keep taxes down.

The agitated residents — and some councilors — had ideas about where those cuts should start.

Right next door to the town office, as it turned out.

“Why don’t we go where the real bloodsuckers are,” Roger roared over the noise of the crowd, “and cut half the police force?”

There was more applause, more rumbling of agreement.

“Why do we need all of these police officers in the first place?” one woman wondered.

Cuts to the Fire Department budget were suggested and one man advised that the library should be closed altogether. Whatever it took to keep taxes down.

As the long meeting wrapped up, there were no solutions to the troubles faced by taxpayers. Nobody threatened to not pay their bill, but many said they had no idea how they would come up with the money.

Councilors suggested that deadlines could be pushed back. Maybe they could do away with interest for people struggling to pay. The whole process, it was generally agreed, needed to be fixed so similar problems wouldn’t return next year.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Council Chairman Michael Bowie, “that we had to learn the lesson this way.”

The next meeting is planned for Tuesday night.

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Comments

 's picture

Glad I Live In Rumford

I am glad that I live in Rumford where the board gets along with each other, and the town manager is up-front with both the board and the citizens. It has been my pleasure to be involved with my town government over the past few months.

Unlike Lisbon, our town runs under a charter and selectmen-town manager plan which permits the people to be involved and have significant input as to how the town runs. Since the turmoil of the past, our town has become politically aware, and now people attend the meetings as a matter of interest, not just to throw stones or watch the circus. I believe that the people of our town feel empowered to be active participants in our government, as opposed to those who have to bang at the drawbridge of their government in under a town council.

When you give up your selectmen, you give away the authority of the people. You rely upon seven people to make all decisions for the town without any significant accountability, except for their reelection. In a selectmen form of government, the people have the authority to take action to correct errors without the consent of the elected leaders. I enjoy our democracy and am quite happy we never resorted to an autocratic form of government.

 's picture

What a great article

Recently, on Twitter, I engaged a couple of editors (one from the Sun Journal) in a debate about what's wrong with newspapers today. It didn't go very far, bogging down almost instantly in the old we-know-what-we're-doing hurbris.

However, the point I tried to make was this: It is lazy thinking to blame the woes of the newspaper industry on the internet, or the economy. The biggest problem with newspapers is newspapers themselves, I argued. By and large, the product sucks. One reason is that the Gunning-Fogg index, the inverted triangle, and other precepts of "good" journalism developed during the past 50 years, have conspired to suck all the life out of newspaper writing. Pick up any Maine newspaper from the 1940s and you'll find that not only was there much more to be had in terms of actual content, the stories were infinitely more interesting to read.

Then comes Mark LaFlamme.

This article is not long, but it gives all the facts and, best of all, really gives the reader a sense of having been at the meeting in question. Anyone reading this article, whether today or 100 years from now, can't help but come away with a real feeling for what it was like to live in this time, and in this place.

Now, there are certainly a lot of charged, subjective words in this piece, and a "good" editor might have been excused for wielding the red pen like a sickle. But I'm so glad that whoever reviewed Mark's copy saw fit to let it alone, allowing him to report his impression of what he observed at this meeting.

Now, I grant you, a different reporter might have come way with different impressions, might have found different things to highlight. But I will always look for a LaFlamme byline because, over time, I've learned to trust his impressions, and because a Mark LaFlamme article is simply a joy to read.

That's what newspapers need to succeed, reporters who can write. When I hit the Powerball and start my own newspaper, Mark LaFlamme will be the first person I headhunt from the Sun Journal.

Also, Kalle Oakes.

 's picture

Point well made

Point well made

 's picture

others knew

i know an assessor from another town i heard about this 6 months ago from them. the way i heard it eldridge was forcing the assessor to do it. the reason my friend knew about it was because the assesser from lisbon was looking for a new job.

 's picture

leadership?

Now this town manager will get a severance package/"golden parachute' Who is responsibile
for the mess of hiring Rosie and the BIG salary and benefit package , Who owns this HOT POTATOE?? How will the council members now respond felling like the village idiots "I don't know also..when I opened the bill.." The excuse of "poor communications " is lame--THERE IIS a HIDDEN AGENDA inthe BACK ROOM. Why was the last town manger let go with a nice serverance package. How is my money BEING SPENT and always told that is priveledge info.Where does the BUCK STOP??!!

 's picture

A misfit from the onset

He went to Lisbon after a year or two stint as a do nothing as the Joint Services Coordinator for Lewiston/Auburn - cheerleaded into that position by his fellow Mason, Mr. Bennett. Good old boy connections have moved his career along not talent. Eventually someone pays the piper for a misfit. I weas shocked when Lisbon took him on in that capacity.

 's picture

You should have seen it coming

when the town hired Eldridge he had just got booted out of Rumford,I can't believe who would have bought his story on what he could do for Lisbon.
Obviously he wasn't alone in his mismanagement in Rumford but it's not hard to see that ultimately he was responsible.

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