Guest column

Towns lower property taxes due to state budget

By Rep. Erin Herbig | Sep 07, 2017

For years, our tax system has given massive breaks to out-of-state, multimillion-dollar corporations while taking more out of the pockets of hardworking Mainers.

Property taxes have skyrocketed as cities and towns, ignored by the state, have tried to pay for essential services and public schools with less money.

These excessive property taxes are crippling communities like ours and threatening vulnerable seniors and homeowners who have lived in Maine for generations.

Farmers like my grandfather are being forced to pay more than $1,000 a month in property taxes on the family farm. And if you live on a lake or the ocean, your bill is a lot worse.

Rising costs plus a lack of any affordable housing across Waldo County has created the perfect storm for struggling families.

Steep property taxes should not be the thing that drives our families out of state, keeps young people from moving here, and guts the quality of our public education. We have ways to target relief to Mainers who, through no fault of their own, have been hit hardest by rising property taxes.

Earlier this year, I hosted a town hall at the Hutchinson Center in Belfast and talked about how I would lower property taxes for Mainers. My plan included expanding the Homestead Exemption, expanding the Property Tax Fairness Credit, increasing Revenue Sharing and fully funding Maine schools.

If it had passed, the plan would have reduced property taxes by $83 million for Maine families.

I worked hard with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to make it happen. We weren’t able to get all the way to the finish line this year, but we made real progress in finally lowering property taxes.

We fought for and secured $162 million in new funding for public schools statewide which includes more than $3.16 million for Waldo County schools.

When towns aren’t faced with cutting public services or school funding to make ends meet, they’re less likely to be forced to increase property taxes to make up the gap.

Already we’re witnessing the result of our investment in public schools.

On July 27, in an article entitled “State budget brings windfall to RSU 71 towns,” The Republican Journal reported that Regional School Unit 71 will receive $565,021.87 more in school funding next year. That means that towns like Belfast, Searsmont and Morrill will pay a lower share of education costs, some up to even 5 percent less, which will help reduce property taxes for every family.

And it’s not just RSU 71. On Aug. 17, in an article entitled “RSU 20 uses subsidy windfall to lower assessments,” The Republican Journal reported that Searsport will pay 0.87 percent less for its share of public education funding compared to last year because of the additional funding. It was facing a 2.87 percent increase.

And, because of the extra funding, instead of its local share of education costs increasing by almost 4 percent, Stockton Springs will pay just 0.1 percent more this year than last.

In addition to adequately funding public schools, we worked to protect tax breaks for Maine seniors and others struggling to keep up with crippling property taxes.

While Gov. LePage originally proposed to cut the Homestead Exemption property tax credit for Mainers under the age of 65, we succeeded in defending an expansion of the credit for everyone. More hardworking Waldo County families will receive direct relief as a result.

Despite that important accomplishment, there were other tools to reduce property taxes that we were not able to expand this session.

Revenue sharing will remain at 2 percent over the next two years. That’s an estimated $411,579.43 for Belfast in 2018. That’s not enough to keep up with our needs.

Without an increase in revenue sharing to help pay for roads, law enforcement and education, property taxpayers are left footing more of the bill.

The fact that only 2 percent of our federal tax revenue will come back to our communities is not OK with me. I’ll keep fighting to make sure more of Waldo County’s dollars return home.

And, while we weren’t able to increase it, we protected the Property Tax Fairness Credit. The Property Tax Fairness Credit helps offset the burden of property taxes for low- and middle-income homeowners and renters.

Approximately 53,000 Maine taxpayers took the Property Tax Fairness Credit last tax season. Imagine if the more than 3,000 renters in Waldo County were able to take advantage of this targeted tax relief? I hope to expand the credit to more of these families in the future.

We should be utilizing every tool we have, from sustainable school funding to property tax credits, to finally lower property taxes for every Maine family.

Growing up I watched too many of my friends and neighbors leave the state for better jobs and opportunities for their families.

It shouldn’t be that way for any future generation in Maine. Our state has the tools it needs to build a stronger future. It’s time we made the choice to fight to keep our families here and attract more young people to our growing communities.

Lowering property taxes is a smart move we can make today for Maine’s future success.

House Democratic Majority Leader Erin Herbig is currently serving her fourth term in the Maine House of Representatives. She represents House District 97, which includes Belfast, Northport and Waldo.

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