September 23, 2020

Houlton council takes no official position on coming tax initiative

HOULTON – Although the Town Council did not follow in the footsteps of other municipal boards throughout the state in taking a position on the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, the board on Monday evening did talk about what the initiative could have done to town finances in the past and speculated about its potential impact on the municipality in the future.

The council spent more than a half-hour listening to a presentation about the coming TABOR referendum from Town Manager Douglas Hazlett. He said that he waited until this week to talk about the issue because he wanted his proposal to be “100 percent objective.”

Modeled after a Colorado initiative, TABOR would limit the growth of spending at the state, county, municipal and school district levels to the annual rate of inflation and population growth.

Communities could override TABOR-imposed limits on revenue increases. According to the TABOR proposal, revenue increases would have to be supported by two-thirds of the members of the legislative body of a quasi-municipal agency or a local district, then be approved by a majority of the voters in that jurisdiction.

Supporters of the proposal say TABOR allows for sensible growth of government at all levels while also fashioning a stable tax and regulatory climate.

Others disagree, arguing that it would hurt local school districts and hamstring municipal efforts to provide services and sustain infrastructure.

During the session, Hazlett said that the town officials had worked diligently over the years to keep taxes down and pointed out that Houlton’s mill rate tended to remain at or below the rate of inflation. The tax rate has decreased significantly over the past six years, going from 25.25 mills in 2000 to 18.5 mills this year.

The town also has been revalued during that time.

Hazlett told councilors that if TABOR were passed, the town would likely have to reduce the amount of funding that it keeps in surplus. Over the past decade, the town has used money from surplus to offset taxation and lower the mill rate.

Hazlett also discussed what could happen to the town in regard to its tax billing system. The town closes its books on the last day of the year, but tax bills do not go out until summer. Officials typically run the town in the interim with surplus funds and loans. A lower amount of surplus could mean that the town would have to borrow money and pay interest charges for a longer period of time.

The manager also told councilors that some questions about how TABOR would work if passed remain unclear at this point.

The council did not talk in detail about the initiative, but Chairman Paul Romanelli speculated that the town was doing fine without TABOR.

“I think that we have shown great fiscal responsibility over a multiyear period of time,” said Romanelli. “I think we probably don’t need TABOR in the town of Houlton, simply because the record has shown that we know how to spend a dollar and we know how to save a dollar.”

Although Houlton resident Stan Ginish said that he didn’t agree with every aspect of TABOR, he told councilors that he felt that the initiative would give the taxpayers more control over government spending.

Ginish speculated during the meeting that some purchases approved by the council, such as the acquisition of a $247,850 rescue truck to be used by the Fire and Ambulance Departments, would not have been made if the decision had been up to the taxpayers.

Before the meeting adjourned, councilors encouraged the public to get out and vote on Nov. 7.

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