AUGUSTA, Maine — Mayors from four Maine communities said Tuesday that Gov. Paul LePage’s efforts to force them to cut spending have created a standoffish relationship and that more progress could be made if LePage would collaborate instead of dominate.

Furthermore, the mayors of Portland, Westbrook, Saco and Augusta said that LePage’s continuing assertion that taxpayer money is being wasted at the local level ignores years of collaboration and found efficiencies.

“To be told by members of the governor’s office that we’re not willing to take the steps necessary to save money is insulting not only to me but the other mayors,” said Augusta Mayor David Rollins.

While there are municipal leaders who are on board with LePage’s agenda — Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte directs LePage’s Office of Policy and Management, for example — much of the talk coming from municipal leaders is critical of the governor.

Much of the conflict boils down to a cost-value analysis of local control. Mayors argue that it has inherent worth and represents core Maine values, while LePage counters that the state can’t afford to subsidize that level of autonomy for the state’s almost 500 municipalities.

Here is where the conflict stands.

LePage is cutting funding to municipalities. Two years ago, LePage tried to eliminate municipal revenue sharing, which is a percentage of sales tax that under Maine law is supposed to be paid to municipalities to support vital programs and services. The Legislature turned that effort away over the governor’s objections, but he’s back with another budget proposal that again attempts to eliminate it in the second year of the biennial. LePage also led a successful effort to push some public school teacher retirement costs to the local level and is proposing changes to the school funding formula that would require many Maine communities to raise more money before their state education subsidy kicks in.

LePage has a proposal to ease that cut, but it probably isn’t going anywhere. In the two-year state budget proposal that is under consideration in the Legislature, LePage has suggested that towns and cities should be able to levy property taxes on large nonprofit organizations, but that provision has encountered significant resistance in the Legislature. LePage also has an active proposal to let municipalities collect telecommunications excise taxes, which would be a new source of revenue for municipalities worth some $9 million a year.

LePage says schools and municipalities are wasting property tax dollars. During a news conference earlier this month, LePage suggested that Maine’s public school system is wasting at least $250 million per year. He often says “local control is great but expensive.” His property tax relief programs are largely targeted at veterans and residents 65 and older.

“The towns spend it faster than they can shake a stick at it,” LePage told the Bangor Daily News shortly after his re-election in November. “If you pay property taxes, we’re sending you your share of revenue sharing directly.”

LePage says cuts in state revenue don’t have to result in higher property taxes. The governor has argued that if municipal leaders are concerned about rising property taxes, they could cut spending to avoid it. Many municipal leaders have said they keep downward pressure on property taxes and have trimmed spending to the bone, especially since the beginning of the Great Recession.

What the mayors said

Saco Mayor Donald Pilon: “Revenue sharing is an important revenue stream back to the communities. … The LePage administration doesn’t want to share these taxes that are generated from these communities back to our towns, which isn’t fair. … In order for us to maintain services, they’re forcing us to increase property taxes. … It’s forcing our seniors to move out of our communities. It’s making it unaffordable for young families to buy a house.”

Westbrook Mayor Colleen Hilton: Hilton said there has not been a property tax rate increase in Westbrook in four years but that the city is considering a 4.5 percent jump.

“There are so many uncertainties about the budget that we just passed because so many things about the governor’s budget proposal are up in the air,” she said.

Augusta Mayor David Rollins: “There’s an independent streak to Maine. There’s a lot of town pride and a lot of wanting to have control and fear in small towns about being sucked up by a bigger entity. The confrontational relationship between state government and local governments [isn’t helping]. … We all stand ready to work with state government.”

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan: “I’d be more than happy to reduce taxes, but we need to focus on the property tax because that is the most regressive tax. We’d like to see a continuation of those long-standing partnerships around municipal revenue sharing. … We’re always looking at ways we can consolidate but critical to that is having a strong partnership in Augusta. That partnership has continued to erode.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.