Rep. Wayne Werts: Auburn would face unacceptable decisions

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Imagine if Auburn suddenly had to cut 23 firefighters. Or lay off 27 police officers. Or close down the public library. Or eliminate its entire summer and winter road maintenance budget.

It seems unthinkable, doesn’t it? But each of these represents the loss of $1 million to the city, the amount we stand to lose if the state breaks its longstanding promise to cities and towns.

That promise is called revenue sharing. Established more than four decades ago, it supports important municipal services while keeping property taxes in check for residents and small businesses.

Under this practice, a small portion of the sales and income taxes collected by the state goes back to local communities. It recognizes the role that Maine cities and towns — places like Auburn and Lewiston — have in the state’s overall economy.

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Let’s be clear. If the state doesn’t honor its obligation, unacceptable decisions are in store for Auburn. We’re talking about slashed services, property tax hikes on the middle class or some combination of these.

I don’t want to see us at that crossroads. I was part of the Auburn Fire Department for 33 years, the last nine as chief. I remember clearly how hard it was to find places to cut in tough budget times. Poring over figures in spreadsheets and looking around the stations, there wasn’t fat to cut.

At one point, I had to take a rescue truck out of service — a decision that saved some personnel costs but also resulted in increased maintenance and fuel costs for the engines we then had to use on rescue calls as well as increased response times.

Another time, I had to halt short-term hires — the additional staffing that helped cut wait times for residents in need of assistance and that provided some bit of relief for exhausted regular personnel during ice storms and other significant events.

Those times pale in comparison to what our city now faces. I shudder to think that emergency services could become dangerously thin. What would it mean for Auburn? A huge hit to the firefighting ranks? The closing of a station?

I also know that property taxpayers can’t afford another hit.

When I talk to constituents, they tell me that economic times are still tough. The elderly and others on fixed incomes can’t afford a property tax hike. Neither can young families or regular working folks who are struggling just to keep up.

Gov. Paul LePage has decided he doesn’t want to honor the promise between the state and local communities. He tried to get rid of revenue sharing during the last legislative session, but lawmakers were able to stop him. The Legislature put these funds for communities — two-thirds of what it had been previously — back into the budget and blunted property tax hikes.

A proposal from the chairs of the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee — Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, and Sen. Dawn Hill, D-York — would keep the promise made in the bipartisan budget passed by the Legislature last session. The measure would protect $40 million that the budget promised to communities like ours.

Dozens and dozens of Mainers from all over the state came to Augusta recently to tell lawmakers how important this measure is. There were mayors, town managers, members of city councils and town selectboards. Public safety officials, including my Auburn firefighting colleagues, were there in force as well.

I am not alone in my fears about what further cuts to funds for communities would mean.

Biddeford worries about having to eliminate several city police officers, cut dispatchers at the regional emergency call center or lose an ambulance. Gardiner sees one firefighter and one to three police officers at risk. South Berwick residents rank public safety as their No. 1 priority but the police department remains short-staffed. Rockland sees nowhere left to cut except for draconian steps like the elimination the police night shift.

I could go on. The message from all over our state is the same and it is one that we must hear: Maine must keep its funding promise to local communities.

Rep. Wayne Werts, D-Auburn, is serving his first term in the Maine House of Representatives. He serves on the Legislature’s Transportation Committee and is past chief of the Auburn Fire Department.

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