Ward 2 City Councilor Roger Lee has been elected to the City Council twice, and has weathered stiff criticism for some of his decisions, including the threat of a recall. But his latest challenge, from Rita Horsey, a founder of the Tea Party Patriots of Midcoast Maine, left him somewhat at a loss.

In a modern turn, Lee checked out his opponent’s Facebook page and saw the candidate holding up a sign with what Lee interpreted as an alarming slogan suggestive of the 1850s “Austrian economics” that underlie Tea Party views.

“The thesis is that you will raise a culture of people who are dependent on government if you take any money from one person and give it to another,” he said.

“They’re just extreme views and out of step with modern times, and so I don’t have a really good understanding … I don’t know how far that goes, or how many people really have those views. I’m much more of a moderate than that,” he said, laughing. “A lot of my friends are liberals, but I’m actually politically something of a moderate.”

Lee could probably claim to be a fiscal conservative, though in a recent interview with VillageSoup he did not use the expression. Over the past three years, Lee, who also serves on the notoriously unsentimental Waldo County Budget Committee, claimed he had played an instrumental role in lowering the city’s tax rate and holding it level for the past three years.

It’s a big claim, but one that has been voiced by numerous city officials at different times.

In past years, Lee has pushed for a leaner city budget, but in the most recent budget, when the city faced reduced state revenues and an increased school budget, he and other members of the Council made the decision to take $600,000 from surplus in the current budget to keep the tax rate the same as last year’s (half of this money was recently replenished from unspent money from the 2009-10 fiscal year), effectively subsidizing other branches of government.

According to Lee, this was a necessary measure and a temporary one.

“I see nothing wrong with using the surplus to pay for that, because it’s a rainy day and it will end,” he said. “Those revenues from the state, I believe, will return to the pre-recession levels.”

Lee challenged his opponent’s assertion that the surplus should be saved for an event like the ice storm of 1998. In such an event, he said, the city would get significant help from federal and state emergency management agencies.

“The real emergency I can see spending [the surplus] on is the one we’re in right now: the state says, ‘we’re cutting your revenues.'”

Looking ahead, Lee said there were still some places where the city budget could be reduced, but he cautioned those expecting big tax cuts from the Council that the city portion accounts for just 35 percent of a Belfast resident’s tax bill.

“I would think you’d have to get that tax rate down by 10 percent before you would even notice, and that means you’d have to cut the city budget by 30 percent,” he said. “How could you cut the city budget by 30 percent?”

On the topic of spending from surplus, Lee, who in the past has argued that Belfast’s surplus is unnecessarily large, supported two major land purchases made last year outside the budget cycle — a parcel of land adjoining Belfast Common and the joint purchase with Coastal Mountains Land Trust of a portion of the old Belfast & Moosehead Lake rail corridor. Both of these he said would improve the quality of life in Belfast.

Looking back, Lee described the first three of his four previous years on the Council as dominated by one major issue or another.

Elected in 2006, his first term was consumed with the big box debate — then at its peak — and the second term with a Council decision to eliminate a Searsport Avenue big box zone created by referendum.

The Council moved the zone to a similar property on Route 3 and the decision generated considerable backlash, including an attempt to recall two city councilors in the fall of 2008. Lee was on the short list for the recall, but was spared when his opponents realized his term was set to expire, and in 2008 he was re-elected.

The next year, he recalled, was dominated by the Council’s work on the land use portion of the city’s comprehensive plan. A highlight of that work was to recommend smaller lot sizes inside the bypass, which Lee said could make it easier for smaller businesses to start up.

Recently, Lee supported hiring Belfast’s first economic development director and voted to hire a company to design a waterfront and downtown master plan, now in the early planning stages.

The master plan and the city’s efforts to build a waterfront walking and recreational promenade have been painted by some opponents as accelerating gentrification, but Lee said that kind of change is coming no matter what.

“The people who are buying the summer homes, the people who find this place attractive, it’s a free country. They can move here. So what we want to do is do something smart so the net result 20 years from now looks better than it would if we just let it go.”

The key, Lee said, is to be able to keep a diversity of people in the city, which means affordable housing and jobs for people of all skill levels must remain part of the picture.

So, why is he running for re-election?

“The same reason I encourage other people to run,” he said. “You can really make a difference in a positive way here in the city if you get involved in city government, and I feel I have. I feel I bring some skills to the job that make it possible for me to make a difference.”

“I also think I’m somebody who tends to be willing to listen and change my mind,” he said.