A dozen people seeking to represent various parts of Waldo County in the next Legislature gathered at the Hutchinson Center Sept. 15 to answer a range of questions and let their prospective constituents know where they stand on some of the issues the Legislature will likely have to deal with.

The forum was sponsored by the Waldo County Municipal Association, and Geoff Herman of Maine Municipal Association served as the moderator for the forum. Candidates were each given 30 seconds to introduce themselves, and then they were given a minute each to answer prepared questions from municipal and school officials in the audience.

Candidates who attended the Sept. 15 forum, and the districts they are seeking to represent, included:

House District 41 (Frankfort, Prospect, Searsport, Stockton Springs and the Hancock County towns of Orland and Verona Island): James Gillway (R-Searsport) and Veronica Magnan (D-Stockton Springs).

House District 42 (Brooks, Jackson, Monroe, Swanville, Waldo and Winterport): Joe Brooks (D-Winterport) and Peter Rioux (R-Winterport).

House District 43 (Belfast, Belmont and Northport): Lewis Baker (R-Belfast) and Erin Herbig (D-Belfast).

House District 44 (Islesboro, Liberty, Lincolnville, Morrill, Searsmont and the Knox County towns of Appleton and Hope): Andy O’Brien (D-Lincolnville) and Wendy Pelletier (R-Hope).

House District 45 (Burnham, Freedom, Knox, Montville, Palermo, Thorndike, Troy and Unity): Ryan Harmon (R-Palermo) and Helen Sahadi (D-Thorndike).

State Senate District 23 (all of Waldo County): John Piotti (D-Unity) and Mike Thibodeau (R-Winterport).

The only candidate who will be on the ballot in the fall and did not attend the Sept. 15 forum was Ken Coleman, a Green Party candidate from Monroe seeking to represent House District 42.

Municipal spending

The forum got under way with a question from Prospect Selectman Bill Sneed, who asked the candidates if they believed that municipal governments “wisely and effectively” collect and spend property tax dollars. Nearly all of the candidates praised towns for crafting fiscally responsible budgets.

“You small towns do the best job,” said Thibodeau. “Local government does the best job of spending tax dollars wisely.”

“I agree with Mike,” said Piotti, who noted with a laugh that he and his opponent sometimes do agree on things. Piotti said there were changes that could be made, but cautioned that some things that might sound good on paper (consolidation of municipal operations, for example) sometimes proved faulty.

Magnan also mentioned consolidation, and said it was a practice better suited for urban areas.

“I don’t see a need to consolidate government,” she said.

Gillway, who is Searsport’s city manager, drew a laugh when he answered, “I think local governments do a fantastic job!” He went on to say that individuals knew they couldn’t go over their own budget, and that they tended to apply the same standard to their town government.

Several candidates, including O’Brien and Herbig, mentioned having attended annual town meetings in their respective districts earlier in the year.

O’Brien said his uncle, who works in Washington D.C., told him town meetings should be carried on C-SPAN, because they represent “real democracy.”

“I think Augusta could learn a lot from those levels of scrutiny,” said Herbig, referring to the line-by-line budget votes. “The same level of accountability is needed in Augusta.”

Pelletier referenced the adage about that which governs most closely to the people governs best, and Baker offered a similar take, saying the further government got from its constituents the worse it was. Harmon said local government was better because it had less bureaucracy.

Sahadi agreed with the other candidates, and said if elected she would consult with municipal leaders on ways to find greater efficiencies.

Rioux described town meetings as the “purest form of democracy,” and said that he didn’t see much wasteful spending at the municipal level. Brooks said town governments did a “wonderful job” and that their biggest challenge was dealing with unfunded mandates from the state.

Transportation

Knox Selectman Galen Larrabee, after referring to discussions at the state level about turning some roads back over to municipalities, asked candidates if they felt transportation funding from the state was adequate or if it needed to be changed.

Though it was not the focus of his question, many of the candidates referred to the issue of the state’s turning roads over to towns. Their responses indicated a hesitancy to do so, for fear towns would not be able to afford it.

“Shifting that obligation doesn’t solve any problems,” said Herbig. O’Brien also worried about the cost to towns.

Sahadi said she was “nervous” about supporting any proposal like that, because the last time it happened, in the early 1980s, funding promises went unmet.

Harmon and O’Brien both mentioned the possibility of converting some back roads from pavement to dirt, as it might be cheaper to do so in some cases.

Piotti described transportation funding as a “core function of government” — O’Brien used similar language — and said the “state of our public infrastructure is terrible.” He said roads that needed to be totally rebuilt are often simply repaved, a strategy he called a “Band-Aid.”

“To do it right costs money, but it’s money that needs to be spent,” said Piotti. “It needs wise, long-term investment.”

Pelletier, who said she was not a road expert, thought the state might do better by repaving roads sooner while they were still in better shape. She expressed a reluctance to see any state-maintained roads turned over to towns.

Gillway invoked what he called the “wholesale turnover” of roads from the state to towns in the early 1980s, and turning to the present discussions on that subject, he said he would wait to see the contents of a report that is due back to the Legislature in January.

Thibodeau said roads needed more money, and he said that money could come from other programs that were currently over-funded (he offered Efficiency Maine as an example of the latter).

Rioux said he believed the state Department of Transportation could operate more efficiently, and that if it did, that would allow for greater funding for road work. Brooks said before the state turned over any roads to municipalities, those towns should insist that the roads have been built to the same standard the town has in place for its own roads.

Baker said roads were important for economic development, but said he would not support creating new taxes or raising existing taxes to fund more road work.

“The Legislature must set priorities,” he said.

School funding

Region School Unit 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux asked candidates about the state’s obligation to fund 55 percent of the general fund for education — an obligation that, to date, has not been met.

Candidates expressed support for having the state meet the 55-percent funding requirement, and for education in general, but some said it was a problem not easily solved.

“We don’t have the money in Augusta right now,” said Piotti. “We can’t solve this piecemeal when a recession hits.”

Thibodeau, for his part, said the situation was a “matter of priorities,” and implied that state government had been setting the wrong priorities under the Baldacci administration.

“Whenever the state has a shortfall,” said Thibodeau, “they seem to turn that problem over to the local governments.”

Several candidates also said that the school consolidation measure had not produced much in the way of savings for education.

School Administrative District 3 Superintendent Heather Perry asked candidates about the state’s Essential Programs and Services funding model, which uses student enrollment figures to help determine funding levels. Specifically, she asked if EPS works equally well for all school systems, and if not, how would they change it.

Most of the candidates said they thought EPS was a good idea, but that it could stand to have some improvements made to it. Sahadi, for example, who is a former school board member in SAD 3, said she believed EPS could sometimes “adversely effect small, rural communities,” because they have fewer students and they are spread out over a larger geographic area.

Piotti said school funding was not a Republican versus Democratic issue, but rather small communities compared to large communities. That statement drew agreement from Thibodeau.

“It’s not an R versus D issue,” said Thibodeau. “It’s a Cape Elizabeth versus Lubec issue.”

Homestead exemption

Searsmont Selectman Bruce Brierley mentioned the cuts made to the state’s homestead exemption program, and asked the candidates how they would “help alleviate the increasing tax burden on towns.”

The exemption was originally set at $13,000, Brierley said, with that amount being fully refunded by the state. The amount reimbursed then dropped down to $7,500, and when the exemption dropped to $10,000, the reimbursement dropped to $5,000.

All candidates present expressed strong support for the homestead exemption, and many said they wanted to see it restored to its original level. Democratic incumbents, however, found themselves having to explain how they could support the program while having voted for a state budget that made cuts to it.

“I feel bad that we did have to do cutting this year,” said Magnan. It was the correct choice for this year, but we hope to get it back eventually, with the state picking up the full cost.”

O’Brien said he “had to vote for the budget,” but that it was not something he wanted to do.

“There was something in there for everyone to hate,” said O’Brien of the state budget, a sentiment echoed by Piotti.

Thibodeau brought up the Baldacci administration’s claim that the budget had been approved with no broad-based tax increases. He said the people in the audience knew that wasn’t true, and that the party in power in Augusta had instead pushed costs back onto municipalities.

State cost-shifting

Waldo Selectwoman Kathy Littlefield referred to what Thibodeau had mentioned, costs being pushed from the state onto the towns, and asked candidates if they would continue that practice if elected. If not, she asked, how would you do things differently?

Rioux said he would not support unfunded mandates, and said state government should look for greater efficiency within its own ranks.

Magnan referenced the cuts state government had already made, which she said amounted to nearly 1,000 positions being cut. While Magnan was indicating that was a sacrifice on the part of those in state government, some in the audience didn’t seem very impressed. Murmurs of “Good!” and “Cut some more!” could be heard after Magnan’s statement.

When Magnan further suggested that towns should take a closer look at their own budgets, “What are you going to do with the money you get, and what can you do to cut with a scalpel in your towns?” she asked — the murmurs of discontent grew louder.

Gillway said Augusta should “learn to do more with less,” and Piotti — who championed an unsuccessful tax reform plan — said the state had to reduce the volatility in its tax revenues by restructuring its system.

Thibodeau encouraged voters to check their representative’s voting record, to see “who’s been a friend to municipalities.”

Pelletier said the Legislature should be more frugal, and Harmon said it should “keep in mind how much money it [the state budget] is, and how it affects people.”

Questions from audience

Brooks resident Ray Shute made reference to the looming funding crisis for the state’s pension system, and asked the candidates if they would support any move by the state to have towns help pick up the cost of that.

Candidates across the board acknowledged that the pension funding was a huge problem, but said they would not support the state’s shifting any of that obligation to municipalities.

Magnan said she didn’tt want to see the state “take the pension problems out on the backs of the pensioners,” and said she would work to fix the funding problem.

“I hope it doesn’t come on the backs of taxpayers,” said Brooks. “But we do need to repay it.”

Belfast resident Rita Horsey, who is seeking a seat on the City Council this fall, invoked earlier statements from some candidates about wanting to make budget cuts with a scalpel, as opposed to an axe.

“If you had a hatchet, what would you cut?” asked Horsey of the candidates.

Baker, Herbig and Sahadi all essentially said they would look at anything and everything, but some Democrats chafed at Horsey’s question.

“I don’t support hatchets, bazookas, chainsaws or anything like that with regard to the state budget,” said O’Brien.

Magnan noted that she hadn’t “gotten any smiles, or rounds of applause,” but said that was because she was “telling the truth.”

“Everything has been on the table, and everything has been cut,” she said.

Gillway said he would look into cutting the size of the state Legislature, and Brooks cited the Department of Environmental Protection as a place where further efficiencies might be found.

“If you’re serious about saving money, you go to where the money is,” Piotti said in response to Horsey’s question. He cited the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education as the two biggest components of the state’s budget.

Thibodeau also mentioned DHHS, and again said he felt cuts could be made to the Efficiency Maine program.

Horsey’s question followed a similar question from former state Legislator Dave Lindahl, who said he’d heard a lot of promises from candidates in both parties that night and wondered how they would make those promises realities.

“Whose ox are each of you going to gore?” Lindahl asked.

Thibodeau mentioned welfare funding, and Piotti acknowledged that although some cuts had already been made, the state had to cut more. Both Rioux and Baker said they wanted to address the overall size of state government.

Sahadi said everything must be looked at, but said she would prefer to use a scalpel, because people depend on state government for a lot of things.

The last question of the evening came from a resident who cited recent reports that Maine ranks near or at the top of the states in terms of how much it gives out in welfare and similar benefits. The man asked if candidates would support bringing Maine down closer to the national average.

The high welfare benefits, the man said, are “attracting the kind of people that we don’t want.”

The Republican candidates, as a rule, said they would fully support working to bring Maine down to the national average. Democrats were a bit more qualified in their support — Brooks said it would depend on the eligibility requirements and O’Brien said he would want to read the specific bill first.

Piotti said he would support such an effort “in concept,” but cautioned that while such a move might sound great it was not as easily accomplished.

“It’s all in how we do it,” he said.