LEWISTON – Speaking for the tax cap at a debate Thursday night, Tom McBrierty said he doesn’t buy all the warnings of what would happen if the referendum passes Nov. 2. The public isn’t being given all the facts, charged the Tax Cap Yes! spokesman.

Lewiston City Administrator Jim Bennett fired back, saying there’s no way the city could absorb millions less without slashing services. “That isn’t honest. It isn’t the real world.”

After some prodding by McBrierty, Bennett said the cap could mean a $26 million reduction out of the city’s $75 million budget. Or, it could mean a $14 million reduction. Either way, things would change for the worse, Bennett warned.

McBrierty, the former commissioner of economic and community development under Gov. Angus King, said he’s supporting the tax cap because for years spending has grown too much at all levels of government.

Maine’s taxes are 20 percent above the national average, and incomes are 10 percent below. “That is not a good combination,” he said. “I don’t know how you tax yourself to prosperity.”

The impact of the tax cap is not as severe as what’s projected by local government, McBrierty complained, adding that what the public isn’t being told is there’s $250 million more for education spending, approved by voters in the June referendum.

McBrierty also pointed to municipal debt, which he predicted, would not be part of the 1 percent tax cap. And, if properties were assessed at current market value – not below market values as now common – it would all mean cuts from the tax cap would be less severe.

Besides, he added, the tax cap is the only hope homeowners have, saying state lawmakers have spent five years doing nothing, and that’s unlikely to change if the cap is rejected. “Last year, Governor Baldacci’s plan went over like a lead balloon. Even his own party didn’t support it.”

Bennett said the tax cap means Lewiston would lose $26 million because property tax revenue would plunge from $40 million to $14.1 million. There’s no way the city is wasting $26 million, he said.

Taking McBrierty’s challenge, Bennett said that if the law is interpreted so that municipal debt is not part of the 1 percent cap, if property values were assessed at 100 percent of market rates, and if the city got money from the June referendum, it could mean Lewiston’s budget would have a $14 million cut.

That’s still huge, Bennett said. “The entire Police Department is $6.2 million. The Fire Department budget is $5.7 million. … Even if you get rid of every manager, my job, all of the 1,000 secretaries,” he said sarcastically. “That’s only $4 million. It’s not there, folks.”

Tax-cap opponent Peter Geiger also argued that property taxes have grown at about the same rate as incomes. The cap would mean those who don’t need the relief would get breaks. Renters and schools would end up losing, he warned.

Bennett said he understands why someone would vote for the cap, but voters should think about how it would affect their community. The cap would mean user fees would be charged for everything from garbage collection to snow plowing. The fees would mean the rich would pay less, the poor would pay more. “It would be like a reverse Robin Hood scenario,” Bennett warned.

McBrierty countered that since Proposition 13 passed in California, there’s a lot of information about it. “Some people think it’s a disaster, others say it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. We do know this: Since 1978 it has not been repealed.”

About 90 people showed to listen to the debate sponsored by the Sun Journal at the Lewiston Middle School. One audience member was Carol Palesky of Topsham, who, with her taxpayers group, brought the referendum to ballot. Some attending the debate submitted questions asked of the panel through moderator Karl Trautman.

When the debate was over, a few went over to meet Palesky. Ron Turcotte of Lewiston congratulated her “for starting this firestorm.” Chris Houlares of Auburn thanked her, too. “I’m tired of paying these taxes,” he grumbled.

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