LePage budget could set back the comeback city of Bangor

Put me down as an unabashed Bangor booster.

Bangor has become a comeback town.

The downtown used to have lots of empty storefronts and not much to do. Now there’s a new energy, whether at the art walks, concerts or pubs.

Once, over one short period, I took in a farmer’s market, a band in the square, a new play reading at Penobscot Theatre, an outside movie from River City Cinema and dinner amidst dancing in the street for Pride Day.

Every day the Bangor School Department does an excellent job challenging and nurturing students.

Among the many fine teachers at Bangor High, several stick out. Stephen Godsoe leads a program that’s produced a top-ranked math team and attracted hundreds to participate in the other, often very good, math teams. Geography teacher Margaret Chernosky gets students excited about what maps reveal, and they create products so good governmental and scholarly researchers use their work. Chernosky and chemistry teacher Cary James won national awards, from the National Geography Society and the Siemens Foundation.

Outside of the core downtown area, the new arena is going up, and the mall area is growing. Bangor has hospitals, an excellent network of medical clinics, an amazing public library, higher education there and nearby, the bog boardwalk and city forest and wonderful recreational facilities.

None of this would have happened without committed people who used their energy and imagination to make Bangor better. Without bringing the Folk Festival to Bangor, the newer events and businesses wouldn’t have thrived.

Bangor’s comeback was also the fruit of local policy, including spending by the city. Smart investments in cultural institutions, education and economic development helped the Queen City withstand the recession and prosper.

Being a service center that attracts shoppers, diners and people going to events is great. But there’s also a certain level of crime, some of it associated with drug use. For public safety, Bangor put police on the streets and the roads and cultivated a professional fire department.

Now Bangor is in the bullseye of state budget policy. Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to cut all municipal revenue sharing would undermine its successes.

Bangor’s health and its citizens and taxpayers would be hurt by ending the homestead tax exemption program for those under 65 and the Circuit Breaker program, which assisted low-income renters. Education funds would be strained because the state would have school districts pick up half of pension costs.

Between these and other changes, Bangor would have to make huge cuts or raise property taxes, bringing the state back to a system that just didn’t work.

As the Maine Municipal Association explains, “During the decade after the economic recession of the late 1980’s, the state’s over-reliance on the property tax became even more pronounced.” The Homestead exemption, now under the gun, was one legislative fix.

Now the LePage budget plan would shift costs back to property-owners. LePage is right that many towns could save money by consolidating, sharing and paring services. However, cutting costs won’t prevent property taxes from rising on people who lose housing-related tax credits.

In May 2012, LePage said he wanted to eliminate the state income tax, which would massively shift the tax burden to middle and lower income people.

No income tax might sound great, but it would create today’s budget situation on steroids.

Nearly half of next year’s budget gap is due to income tax cuts mostly benefiting people with the highest incomes. Meanwhile many Mainers will end up paying more than they would have before, with their small tax cuts more than offset by higher property taxes.

Whatever happens with the budget, the state should give towns more power by allowing them to adopt a local tax that would be paid almost entirely by tourists. Maine’s 7-percent lodging tax is lower than most of New England’s and, face it, no one decides not to book a $100 hotel room (or $20 campsite) if the tax is just a few dollars (or cents) more.

Working something out will require discussion. In Augusta, LePage still won’t meet with Democratic leaders and Fitch’s bond downgrade mentioned “contentious” politics.

This must change, for, as Bangor’s comeback shows, working together and garnering our common resources and energies, pays off.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.