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Town turns down petition request
RUMFORD -- Citing it did not merit the town law-required "critical circumstance, the Board of Selectmen voted 4-0-1 on April 9 on a request calling a special town meeting sought by a tax cap petition.
Selectman Jeremy Volkernick abstained after saying he signed the petition. "Something has to be done for the welfare of this town."
The ruling came after Town Manager Carlo Puiia read a three-page letter from Town Attorney Jennifer Kreckel, from whom the board sought a legal opinion after receiving the petition April 4. Mark Belanger, a former Rumford selectmen, initially introduced the tax relief petition on April 3 at The Concerned Rumford Taxpayers Group meeting.
The petition sought to create an ordinance to cap the property tax rate at $17.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for each fiscal year, beginning July 1. The current tax rate is $24.25.
Reading from the petition, Belanger said, "Given the financial burden of high property taxes on businesses and homeowners in the town of Rumford, we, the undersigned, believe that a critical circumstance exists."
However, Kreckel, in her letter dated April 9, deemed the "tax cap" ordinance illegal.
Citing case law from 1948 and 1936, she said, "A town has no control over the assessment of taxes. The statute requires the town to appoint assessors of all taxes to be levied within its limits, but the town does this as the political agent of the state."
Kreckel cited the 2005 Palesky movement as "the most compelling example of the state's authority in the area of a 'tax cap.'"
She said that following the movement to pass a statewide cap on tax rates, the Legislature passed the Limitation on Municipal Property Tax Levy.
"This dictates directly and unequivocably to municipalities what they can and cannot do regarding the property tax levy limit," said Kreckel.
"It is, therefore, my legal opinion that the 'tax cap' ordinance sought by the petitioners is in violation of Maine's Constitution and the home rule powers granted to towns by statute, because it seeks to control the power of taxation, which has been delegated exclusively to the state, pre-empting municipal authority expressly."
Additionally, Kreckel said she believes the petition seeks to contravene Rumford's charter process for enacting an ordinance and that it should therefore also be denied on that basis.
"I believe that a municipality does have the authority to establish a 'spending cap,' i.e. a limit on the amount of money that may be appropriated as part of the total annual budget," she said.
Selectmen Chairman Greg Buccina said that no one favors higher taxes. "But we're faced with two unknowns -- the mill abatement and what the Governor ends up doing with tax revenue sharing."
"We don't know how it's going to play out yet," he noted.
Buccina said he wants the town to follow the budget process through to the town business meeting in June, when residents will vote whether or not to approve the budget as recommended by selectmen and/or the Finance Committee.
"If, in fact, the mill's abatement comes in at $500,000 to $1.5 million, and Gov. LePage is met in the middle, which may impact us from half a million to a million dollars, we're going to have to come back and make some ... pretty devastating changes whether we want to or not," he said, noting that then there would not be a choice and the town would have to determine what level of service they could afford.
Buccina said to act on the issue when there are two major unknowns would be irresponsible. Buccina said he isn't totally opposed to the petition idea, because if voters approve it, "I save a lot of money on my taxes."
However, he said, "We need to follow the process and do what's in the best interest of the community."
Belanger, noting that towns like South Portland and Bath have had tax caps, said he would "get another opinion before we move on this."
Selectman Brad Adley moved to not approve convening a special town meeting on the petition. However, Selectman Jolene Lovejoy said she didn't think town law allowed them to motion negatively.
Selectman Jeff Sterling said the petition asks whether the board deems that a critical circumstance exists that would allow them to convene a special town meeting. Adley changed his motion, saying a critical circumstance does exist. The board voted against the motion.
Sterling said Kreckel left the door open to petitioners to present the petition at the board's meeting to consider ordinance requests, which was held Tuesday night. Belanger indicated they would do so.