February 2

ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL: Augusta council’s goal-setting session full of spirited conversation, debate

Don Roberts

I SPENT A DAY at the Augusta City Council’s 2014 goal-setting session at the Civic Center. Spirited conversation and debate ranged from Councilor Mike Byron speaking about the “changing face of crime in Augusta,” to new Councilor Dale McCormick suggesting that an admirable goal for the city should be the “elimination of inequality for women and minorities.”

Inequality in Augusta is probably news to Amanda Bartlett, Sue Grenier, Kim Meservey, Nancy Shuman and Cassie Babb — women just honored for their achievements at the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce annual banquet. Also, it must be news to former four-term Mayor Bill Burney (whom we elected long before President Barack Obama) and undoubtedly surprising to our refugee immigrants, who soon will have a new mosque to attend in our community.

McCormick also proposed changing state law so that the council could be allowed to implement local sales taxes.

The newest councilor, as anticipated, is reprising some of her strong views from previous service in the state Legislature. A tireless tour de force for her causes, “D Mac” will be an effective leader in council debate. McCormick “is back.”

This November, because of term limits, new councilors will be elected in Wards 1 and 4.

It also has been rumored that at-large Councilor Jeff Bilodeau might not seek re-election if his military career with the Maine National Guard offers a national opportunity.

Such a major change in council composition could create a critical shift in the policies of what has been pretty much a pro-growth, fiscally conservative City Council.

Many issues, including economic development, were discussed at the Augusta summit. Plans centered on the new burgeoning hospital district and the area at Riggs Brook. You can look for the city’s development to occur in those places, along with the eastside riverfront where Statler Tissue was located.

Schools Superintendent James Anastasio commented about the transient population and how changing demographics is placing new pressures on education costs. He has been contacted about the possibility of 200 more families composed of refugee immigrants moving to Augusta in the not-too distant future. The superintendent said all new students are welcome and noted that previous efforts to assimilate refugee students into the school system have been successful.

Representatives of Friends of Lithgow Library presented a followup request for the council to move forward with a referendum to provide a bond issue for library renovation and expansion. Information from city finance director, Ralph St. Pierre, revealed that the city is investigating whether the state would approve library costs as “eligible project costs” in a tax increment finance district tied to new natural gas revenues and savings realized by the city. A referendum is hoped for on a bond, supplemented by private fundraising, for the Lithgow project at the state primary elections in June.

Perhaps the most vital discussion came when the Augusta legislative delegation arrived. Sen. Roger Katz and Reps. Corey Wilson, Matt Pouliot and Lori Fowle listened to St. Pierre explain the devastating effect that elimination or further reductions in state revenue sharing would have on property taxes.

Katz outlined the $170 million shortfall in the state budget. The delegates agreed that attention should be focused on the $80 million-$90 million portion of the shortfall created within the Department of Health and Human Services. They all have opposed cuts in revenue sharing, but it is obvious that the situation is grim.

The choices under consideration to close the state budget gap are: cut revenue sharing, cut business tax incentives, increase taxes on income and or sales, raid the state budget stabilization fund (reserve) or place a service fee on major non-profit groups (hospitals, etc.) As Katz pointed out, none of the choices is palatable.

Behind the scenes political notes: Augusta state Rep. Corey Wilson, a bright young freshman star for the Republicans, might not seek re-election (new job?). Amanda Bartlett will not run for council in Ward 1, now that she heads the Augusta Housing Authority. Tom Connors, third-place finisher for council at-large, was at the session. You can bet that he will run again.

Don Roberts is a former city councilor and vice chairman of the Charter Commission in Augusta. He is a trustee of the Greater Augusta Utility District and a representative to the Legislative Policy Committee of Maine Municipal Association.
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