PARIS — Representatives for Gov. Paul LePage at a budget forum Thursday night asked Oxford County residents to rethink how towns spend money.

The gathering was the second stop in as many days to pitch a plan that would reform the state’s tax system and spending priorities. On Wednesday, the governor presented his plan, which seeks to lower the state income tax on top earners and increase the sales tax, in Auburn. 

Several people at the Thursday meeting needed convincing the proposal would work. Hartford Selectman Lee Holman expressed bewilderment that the overall tone of the budget proceedings chastised town officials for being unable to keep taxes low, when in reality the cost of necessities was on the rise. 

“Show me anything that doesn’t cost more,” Holman said. “When I read what’s in here and the governor’s other statements about how bloated we are … it blows me away. We do the just damn best we can with what little we have and little we need.”

Jonathan LaBonte, director of the Office of Policy and Management and the mayor of Auburn, and John Nass, a senior policy adviser, detailed components of how the budget would eliminate revenue-sharing but cut income tax in a bid to get communities to hold discussions on consolidating services such as fire, police and highway departments. 

Some 45 people, mostly state legislators and town officials, attended the meeting at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School. The first of two sessions was an hourlong private discussion with municipal officials, followed by a forum for the general public. 

Nass said he knew many communities were stretched to the limit, and suggested further consolidating of school districts as a solution to lower overhead costs. 

“Are there offsets here and there?” he asked. “Of course. Our question is whether the status quo is working. Is Maine prospering? Are kids staying here? Are businesses coming here? We don’t think the state works the way it should.” 

He said that under the budget proposal, towns considering consolidating their services and schools would be eligible for state funding to help the transition, with funds drawn from two $5 million accounts, one each for education and services. 

“These aren’t to fund consultants to do studies but to assist in implementing services,” Nass said. 

The two-year budget calls for eliminating the income tax in favor of increasing and broadening the sales tax, said to shift costs from residents to tourists.

Under the plan, the state would end revenue-sharing with cities and towns and replace it with a property tax on nonprofit organizations that hold more than $500,000 in property. It would affect hospitals such as Stephens Memorial in Norway and Rumford Hospital, private schools such as Hebron and Fryeburg academies, and conservation land trusts, such as the Western Foothills Land Trust in Norway. 

It would lower the income tax on corporations, and exempt military pensions and up to $30,000 of retirement income. 

Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, said the message that communities need to consider merging or cutting services they could no longer afford was a good one, but it needed careful explanation. 

“When we go around and tell municipal officers … they need to do better, to do this or that … the governor’s concept is we need to put money back in the pockets of taxpayers, and that’s a good concept I support,” Pickett said. 

Rep. Lloyd Herrick, R-Paris, said savings were possible within the immediate surroundings among the police, fire and road departments in Norway, Paris and Oxford. 

“Those opportunities present themselves,” Herrick said. “The budget has seed money to make those proposals work. Again, it’s all local control; it’s all based on local decisions on what people want to do.” 

When state funding decreases are offset with increases on nonprofit taxes, Fryeburg Town Manager Sharon Jackson said, she’d have to raise taxes or cut $170,000 from her $3 million budget. 

LaBonte responded that one solution would be to look to contract police services with the county, disbanding the local force. 

“I think we all need to start sharpening our pencils,” LaBonte said. 

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