On a Tuesday night in the middle of August, the torrential rains of a summer evening gave no relief to the humidity that oppressed the Kennebec Valley. While the streets were quiet in downtown Waterville, a revolt was brewing inside the City Council chambers.
It was just after 8:00 p.m. and the chamber was packed to standing room only while residents continued to approach the podium. For most municipalities in Maine, passing the budget was already a distant memory. But, after a series of council votes, a property revaluation, a mayoral veto and a veto override, the citizens of Waterville were not going to be silenced without a fight.
Tucked tightly against the banks of the Kennebec River, north of Augusta and roughly 50 miles south of Bangor lays the city of Waterville, a former mill town of 16,000 inhabitants struggling to find a new identity. With only twenty percent of registered voters Republican, the phrase “tax and spend” has been commonly accepted as a way of life. This year was different.
Earlier in the month, city chambers were just as packed with many of the same faces that were there on this night. Just as many people spoke at the podium and their messages had been the same: the people simply cannot afford to live at one of the highest tax rates in the state. That night, in the face of an overwhelming wave of resident opposition, the city council made a fatal mistake. Five out of seven councilors voted to override the budget veto and pass the budget without any movement towards relief.
What ensued over the next week was nothing short of the greatest display of the democratic process I have ever seen in our city.
Within 24 hours, a group known simply as Waterville Budget Repeal sprung up on Facebook. In a matter of rapid succession the information began to come out. A local business had donated free space for the group to hold organization meets. Ward captains were given the task of dividing each of the city’s seven wards into walkable maps for petitioners and daily tallies kept the group informed.
Everyone wondered if a small group of citizens could gather over 800 signatures in 21 days. They did so in less than one week.
After two weeks of coverage by the local press it seemed that the council, myself and the residents had come to an agreement of combined cuts and revenue enhancements to get our mil rate to an acceptable level for this year’s budget. When the meeting on August 16 began, the mood in the packed room was serious but optimistic. That changed quickly when the Council Chair made an immediate motion to throw the fragile compromise under the bus and add enormous spending back into the budget.
With an hour of testimony, threats of another veto and emotional pleas from the people, one fact seemed to trump all others. The people, we were assured, were ready to go right back to the streets and this time they promised not to stop until a vote by the people.
Here we are three weeks later, so why am I writing about this now? Because there are lessons that can be taken from the Waterville tax revolt of 2016 that can be learned and adapted by communities around the state.
The first lesson is that elections have consequences. Campaign season is in full swing and local candidates will be out knocking on the doors of their constituents asking for votes. If you are fortunate enough to meet your candidates, take a moment and ask them how they feel about the issues that are important to you, and let them know where you stand. If they are promising new programs, ask where they plan to get the money. Remember, they are asking you for the power of taxation and the spending of your money.
Second and most important, the people have the ultimate power to seize control of local government when they feel it no longer represents their best interests. Read your town charter and find out what your ability for recourse is, and in the meantime, show up to meetings and let your representatives know what you think about issues that affect you.
The role of municipal government is quite simple. Educate our youth, maintain infrastructure and respond to emergencies. If your city or town is spending your money elsewhere, it’s time to ask yourself who its benefiting.
Too many municipal officers today feel it their job to explain to the taxpayer why their costs keep going up rather than make the difficult decisions to right-size municipal budgets to realistic expectations of their constituents. They should understand that complaining about revenue sharing and shifting blame on others is not a strategy.
The taxpayers already do.