PARIS — The Paris Board of Selectmen learned Monday evening that the third time’s a charm.
It took three votes for members to agree on what to do about a citizens’ petition looking to cap the town’s tax rate. The third motion, which passed unanimously, requires the select board, Budget Committee, Town Manager Amy Bernard and department heads to carve half a million dollars from the current budget to see what those cuts would look like. Most of the audience, made up of about 60 people, got up and left during the third vote.
Resident and business owner Scott Buffington handed in his petition at the selectmen’s meeting two weeks ago with nearly 400 signatures. The document reads, “Shall the town of Paris be required to receive the approval of 50 percent of its registered voters before any expenditures of the municipality can result in the mill rate exceeding the state average as determined by the Maine Revenue Service Tax Division starting with the July 2016 budget?”
Selectmen have two options — the first is to hold open town meetings to hear from people what services they can live without, and the second is to move the petition to vote with an advisory message stating it’s a recommended, or advisory, opinion only, according to Bernard.
The most recent state weighted average tax rate of $14.49 per $1,000 of assessed value is from 2013. Currently, the town’s rate is $18.30, which had increased by 40 cents from $17.90 after the recent reevaluation. Selectmen estimated capping the tax rate to the state average would require a cut between $1.2 million and $1.5 million in the municipal budget.
Bernard provided background to selectmen and sent the petition to the town’s attorney for legal review. She wrote the attorney’s opinion is the “question asked is an ultra vires request,” which means the voters don’t have to power to do what is being asked in the petition.
“In order to permanently impose a mil rate/spending cap such as the proposal in the citizens petition intends, there must be authority to do so either through a state law or charter provision to make such a requirement binding,” Philip Saucier of Bernstein Shur Law Firm wrote to Bernard.
The entire board agreed with the audience that there needed to be some sort of property tax relief in Paris. Most weren’t comfortable making deep cuts into the municipal budget.
“It is not the sentiment. It is very much the method,” Selectman Vic Hodgkins said. He noted he supports lowering taxes and served as chairman of the Budget Committee for years, having gone through the town’s budget line by line.
Buffington implored selectmen to let voters weigh in on his petition.
“I think this is a very poor move to ignore this,” he said. “Let it go to vote. Who cares if you have to put an advisory on there?”
He warned residents will show up at town meeting in June and make the cuts anyway if town officials ignore their request.
Selectman Mike Risica made a motion to put the petition as a referendum on the ballot with an advisory note because he felt it should go before the voters. It failed after he and Selectman Janet Jamison cast the only two “yes” votes.
Selectman Sam Elliot liked Bernard’s idea of bringing the petition to town meeting where residents could weigh in on potential cuts to help town officials craft the upcoming budget. His motion failed when only he and Selectmen Chairman Robert Wessels voted in favor.
Prior to Monday’s meeting, Bernard asked department heads to sketch out what their department would look like under the reduction numbers suggested by Selectman Vic Hodgkins. His scenario included cuts to major departments, including $200,000 in administration, $300,000 in the police department, $150,000 in the fire department, $150,000 in the highway department and $347,000 for the capital budget.
If the administration budget were reduced by $200,000 – a 44 percent cut – the Town Office would only be open 20 hours per week for two 10-hour days consecutively, Bernard wrote. It would include laying off one deputy clerk and reduce hours for the code enforcement officer, bookkeeper and town manager. Under this scenario, the town could no longer register motor vehicles, including cars, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles or boats – which means residents would do it online or visit a Bureau of Motor Vehicles office – and the office would no longer sell hunting or fishing licenses.
“If you asked me, I would want my taxes lowered, too, but I still want those services in some way,” Bernard said. “This isn’t just a cut to my staff; it’s a cut to all of us.”
Many residents in the audience strongly disagreed.
“You’re going to hear doom and gloom and Armageddon and the world will stop moving if we cut one red cent from this damn budget,” resident Forrie Everett said during open session.
He conceded that cuts will hurt everybody, but if it’s done in a reasonable manner without scare tactics, it won’t hurt as much. He received the loudest round of applause during the meeting.
Business owner Dennis Creaser agreed town administration was “spelling out Armageddon” as a result of cuts from the petition.
“If it’s not valid, then why bother?” he said. “You guys wasted a lot of time that we pay for,” he added about looking at potential cuts under the invalid petition.
Bernard said she wasn’t predicting Armageddon, but felt it responsible to share with residents what those potential cuts could look like. Elliot disagreed with the notion of scare tactics, noting cutting more than $1 million from a roughly $4 million budget will cause significant cuts in services.
“You can’t just casually dismiss that as scare tactics. Those are facts,” he said. “It’s your town, it’s my town, it’s our town. We can have whatever budget we want. Let’s make sure what we want is what we really want.”
Wessels said there was a some fat in the budget but not a million dollars worth. He believes the town should examine wants versus needs, which would include looking at items such as a new police cruiser.
“My intent is to not cut $1 million-plus from the budget,” Wessels said. “I don’t think it’s a responsible way to do that. My intent is to make a reasonable but responsible … and sizable cut from the budget.”
Risica worried that the petition would draw a line in the sand.
“It’s starting an us versus them thing with the town administration and that has got to stop,” he said. “People aren’t the enemy. … We’re going to work together on this.”
A meeting will be held later next month to go over the budget that’s been reduced by a half a million dollars, at a time yet to be determined.