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Paris tax levy hike approved, charges fly/Voters accuse board, town manager of 'underhanded' conduct
PARIS — After more than an hour of discussion including accusations of dishonest and deceitful conduct by town officials, voters approved raising the town's tax levy limit at a special town meeting Monday.
Residents voted 22 to 15, in a secret ballot, to increase the tax levy by $670,975, allowing the town to cover the expenses included in the municipal budget, passed at annual town meeting June 15.
The vote came after many residents expressed their confusion with the process and frustration with the perceived dishonesty on the part of the selectboard and Town Manager Amy Bernard.
The meeting was called last week, after town officials discovered they would need to override the tax levy established by state law – commonly referred to as LD 1 – in order to commit the property taxes to cover the town's expenses included in the 2013-2014 budget.
At the meeting, Bernard told voters the levy increase was necessary primarily because residents used $422,000 in one-time reserve funds to offset taxes last year, lost about $100,000 in municipal revenue sharing for fiscal 2013-2014 decided to add more than $85,000 to the board of selectmen's recommended budget at the June 15 town meeting.
Bernard took responsibility leaving the LD 1 article off the June 15 warrant. It was the first time she and the bookkeeper had worked on the levy increase and she was initially unaware that revenue factored into the tax levy calculations, leading her to think raising the levy would not be necessary.
With more knowledge about the process, Bernard now understood that regardless of what budget was passed at town meeting voters would have needed to override LD 1 in order to commit taxes, she said.
There was nothing deceitful about overriding LD 1, nor were the selectmen authorizing more spending, Bernard insisted.
"This is a housekeeping error and we are trying to correct that error," Bernard told voters.
Many voters, however, questioned both the necessity of raising the limit and the conduct of Bernard and the selectmen.
Resident Kathy Richardson said the fact that residents learned Bernard had been awarded a $4,000 raise only after the town's budget was approved by voters had shaken her confidence in the board and made her think about voting not to override the levy limit, despite voting for the increased budget on June 15.
Richardson said she felt as though "someone had pulled the wool" over her eyes and said the board had a "credibility gap."
Other residents, including budget committee member Janet Jamison, said a $4,000 raise for Bernard was never discussed at committee meetings and complained the board was not explaining the LD 1 issue clearly.
"If you can't explain it in layman's terms so we, the people who pay the bills can understand it, why should we trust you and why should you get a 10 percent raise?" Jamison asked.
Several other voters said they were unaware at the June 15 meeting that the town's revenue had declined and the tax levy would need to be increased.
Budget committee member Janet Jamison said Bernard and the board were not explaining the process clearly and questioned whether Bernard had even completed the state's tax levy worksheet properly.
Budget committee member Peter Kilgore urged residents to vote against increasing the spending limit and questioned what would happen if residents voted down the measure.
If the town didn't approve the increased levy it would be in "uncharted territory" Bernard said. From her conversations with Maine Municipal Association it could mean using the nearly $671,000 to offset taxes next year, but could also force the selectmen to find that amount in cuts from the budget.
Budget committee member Rick Little said the lack of clarity was frustrating, especially since the board and Bernard had weeks to get "concrete" answers.
Moderator Glen Holmes said LD 1 issues were complex and it wasn't a surprise there were no good answers for what might occur if the levy wasn't increased.
Budget Committee Chairman Vick Hodgkins said he was firmly against increasing the levy limit and disputed the argument that dedicating reserve funds to the town budget last year was a mistake.
"Had we not taken money from those piggy banks your mill rate would have increased about double ... I intend on voting this levy down because at the end of the day I want to work for the taxpayer at the town of Paris and I want to keep our taxes low," Hodgkins declared, to scattered applause.
Other residents, including selectmen, encouraged voters to approve the levy limit, arguing it was needed to pay for the budget that was approved by voters at town meeting.
Selectman Ryan Lorrain said it was an oversight on the board's part not to put the LD 1 override on the town meeting warrant and increasing the levy limit was "not something that is out of the ordinary."
Cindy Kirchherr said increasing the levy didn't authorize spending more than was approved at town meeting, but would allow the town to approve the increases voters made.
Resident Dave Stanley told voters the discussion was being driven by a group that wanted a second chance to reduce the budget in general. He said it would be "unconscionable" for voters to reject the levy increase and oppose the budget approved at town meeting.
Regardless of the vote, the atmosphere of suspicion and anger in the meeting was important to note, said resident Anne Stanley.
"I think the point that was made tonight is that people are angry, distrustful, disappointed, frustrated – that's the basic feeling in this room."