The war over reducing tax burden on Mainers seems to always return to the property tax. Year after year, battles are fought to bring that levy back in line with national averages, or that of comparable states. In some cases, referendum questions are the format and at other times the annual municipal budget process forces debates over cutting services and reducing staff.

This year appears to bring a perfect storm of approaches, ranging from slashing the excise tax, the newest rendition of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, and municipal restructuring likely to leave many out of work come the start of the new fiscal year.

After decades of regurgitating the same approaches with no success, some of us may have hoped for a better outcome to reforming Maine’s tax structure and its dependence on property taxes to deliver core services. In some circles, doing the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome is cause for a diagnosis of insanity.

In Maine, however, it is classified as local control.

Before readers or bloggers get up in arms over my overt assault on local control, let’s have a reality check on the costs for administering it.

As part of Lewiston’s attempt to reduce the gap between projected revenues and expected expenses, a proposal has surfaced to reduce the city from 14 different departments to seven. In addition, the early stages of the budget process has unearthed an approach to save money by encouraging early retirement. The salaries for these department heads has raised eyebrows.

Lewiston’s police chief makes over $90,000 annually. The fire chief and human resources director both make over $80,000. And of course, those are the salaries; not the value of the full package that includes retirement contributions and health insurance. For some, the perception of a golden parachute as some receive both retirement pay and a city salary for a short period make distract from the real discussion. Does an area of 34 square miles with a population approaching 40,000 command over $300,000 in taxes for managers of only three departments?

Between Lewiston and Auburn, the dozens of department heads might make one wonder how those millions in management translates into services delivered on the ground.

A different story is playing out west of the cities, as Minot hired a new town administrator without adding a single staff person. Road Commissioner Arlan Saunders was offered the job, and will retain those responsibilities while also managing the staff in the town office.

Many of the day-to-day operations of the town’s highway department will fall to another staffers and Saunders will introduce additional cross training to ensure town operations are more efficient. The savings to Minot taxpayers? Close to $30,000 out of a small town budget.

Do Lewiston and Auburn, with budgets in the tens of millions, have much in common with Minot? Not really. But if they did, the property tax burden may not be as onerous.

In small towns, where selectmen make management decisions on a regular basis and voters annually approve or reject town spending, dollars seem to get stretched further and limiting overhead and putting those dollars directly into services residents see appears to be standard.

To me, that is local control – residents and local officials determining how many tax dollars are needed for services, not the management and bureaucracy around those services. Millions in overhead is millions not going into plowing, buying road salt, fixing our roads and bridges, fighting fires, catching bad guys and educating our kids.

Let towns and cities decide how much they want to tax themselves to deliver services. And scrutinize their right to build up massive bureaucracies that would get in the way.

Jonathan LaBonte, of New Auburn, is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin County Commissioner. E-mail: [email protected]

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