PORTLAND – A new statewide organization on Wednesday unveiled its opposition campaign to a November tax-cap referendum that it calls dangerous, destructive and irresponsible.

The group, which calls itself Citizens United to Protect Our Public Safety, Schools and Communities, said a referendum to limit municipal property taxes to 1 percent of a property’s value would devastate local services and schools.

About 200 people attended a news conference to publicly introduce the coalition, and half a dozen speakers warned over and over of the referendum’s consequences. They said it would result in the loss of more than $530 million in local revenues statewide and that some towns would see school and municipal budgets cut by more than 50 percent.

“It’s just too extreme,” said Les LaFond, president of AARP Maine. “It will cut too many important local services. It will not work to hold down the tax burden. And it does not help the people who need it most.”

Mainers on Nov. 2 will vote on the referendum, sometimes called the Palesky proposal for tax activist Carol Palesky of Topsham. Palesky spearheaded the campaign to get the proposal on the ballot.

While speakers representing education, business, police and fire departments, and public policy criticized the referendum Wednesday, a dozen or so tax-cap supporters stood in a nearby parking lot, holding signs and jeering. “Second highest tax burden in the country,” a man shouted. “Get your hand out of our wallets,” said another. “Cut spending,” yelled somebody else.

Bob Shuman said he is an example of why a tax cap is needed, with taxes on his Cape Elizabeth home rising from $2,500 to more than $20,000 a year since his retirement in 1987. He said his waterfront home was built by his great-grandfather in 1886 and that he is the fourth generation of his family to live in it.

He has children and grandchildren who would like to become the fifth generation to do so.

“But when they think of the tax bill, it’s not as attractive,” he said.

The Citizens United coalition is comprised of more than 30 organizations, including AARP Maine, Common Cause, Dirigo Alliance, Maine AFL-CIO, Maine Association of Police, Maine Association of Realtors and Maine Council of Churches. Other members include the Maine Education Association, Maine Library Association, Maine Municipal Association, Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine Women’s Lobby.

The group intends to have a fund-raising campaign, run extensive advertising and organize a grass-roots initiative.

Wes Bonney, the retired chief executive officer of Peoples Heritage Financial Group who will serve as chairman of the coalition, said the tax-cap proposal will turn “Maine’s future into a new Dark Age.” He said it will force towns to cut municipal budgets in half, reduce school budgets by a third, lay off hundreds of teachers, eliminate public works crews, let go police and firefighters, and abolish health and welfare programs.

“While some of us may agree that some property tax relief is appropriate, it should be done in a more thoughtful and measured way and not the drastic meat-ax proposal put forward by Palesky,” Bonney said. “It will take too much of a toll on too many Mainers.”

The group Tax Cap Yes!, which supports the tax-cap referendum, said the United Citizens coalition is comprised of “elite special interest and taxpayer-funded organizations that benefit financially from the suffering of Maine’s taxpayers.”

“Most of the members of this anti-taxpayer coalition are taxpayer-funded groups that do not want any limits placed on the amount of money they can tax and spend, so it is not surprising they have joined forces to oppose the 1 percent property tax cap,” Phil Harriman, a former state senator and member of Tax Cap Yes!, said in a prepared statement.

AP-ES-08-04-04 1520EDT

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