Most Bowdoin students do not own property in Maine, but on Election Day those registered here will vote on a property tax cut proposal that may have serious ramifications for local schools and public safety services.
Question 1 on the November ballot, known as the "Palesky tax cap," is a statewide referendum to limit property taxes to one percent of the assessed value of property. Passage of the referendum would result in significant tax cuts?and budget shortfalls?for many Maine localities.
Local government property taxes are the principal source of funding for education, police, fire, and other public services. Opponents say the cap would lead to budget cuts that would seriously threaten these services.
Dean of Student Affairs Craig Bradley said that a decline in schools and local services will make it difficult for Bowdoin to attract good faculty and staff.
"We will be competing with one arm tied behind our backs," Bradley said. "It is going to be a pretty unattractive place in terms of the quality of public education and other public services."
Supporters say the cap is a necessary solution to Maine's high tax burden.
Spokesperson Jen Webber for Tax Cap YES!, the campaign organization supporting the measure, told the Orient that the "overwhelming tax burden turns a lot of people and businesses away from Maine." She pointed to a study that showed as a percentage of personal income, Mainers pay the highest property taxes in the nation.
Government professor Allen Springer, chair of the Brunswick School Board, agreed that Maine needs tax reform. But, he said, "this is not the way to do it."
The tax cap would result in significantly less funding for Brunswick's public schools.
A joint assessment by the Town of Brunswick and the school board showed loses of approximately $9.5 million in yearly tax revenue due to the cap. Assuming that budget cuts would be shared equally between education and other public services, the assessment predicted a 17 percent reduction in education funding.
The assessment was a hypothetical scenario analyzing what the impact would have been had the tax cap been in place for the current fiscal year. The school administration projected a set of cuts that would likely be necessary if the tax cap passed.
"We'd have to consider eliminating kindergarten and significant reductions in art and music," Springer said. Other likely cuts would include the closure of Hawthorne Elementary School, the elimination of 39 teacher positions and K-12 after school activities, including sports.
These cuts, Springer feels, are unacceptable. The board voted 6-0, with one abstention, to oppose the cap.
Others say out-of-control education spending must be curtailed.
"[Maine has] seen a decline in enrollment," Webber said, "but huge increases in spending." She suggested that consolidation in education could significantly reduce costs.
Springer disagrees with those who say Brunswick's schools are spending too much.
"If anything, we err on the side of too little expenditures. Per pupil expenditure in Brunswick is among the lowest in the state," he said.
Apart from the reductions in education funding, the assessment suggested that public safety would face an 11 percent cut, public works a 38 percent cut, and recreation and culture a 73 percent cut.
The list of programs and services that could face elimination includes three police officer positions, the D.A.R.E. program, sidewalk construction, and the recreation center. Other services, including street lighting, snow removal, and park maintenance, would face cuts.
Webber recognized that making budget cuts is difficult.
"We acknowledge that if the one percent property tax cap goes through, many municipalities are going to go through a challenging time," she said.
She maintained, however, that "if government continues to increase spending...at the same rate, its going to be difficult for anyone in Maine to find a good job, educate their children, and save for their future."
Last night President Barry Mills voiced his opposition to the tax cap at the rededication of the newly-renovated Chapel.
Government professor Christian Potholm is working as a consultant and pollster for the anti-tax cap forces. He said his internal polling shows the opponents of the cap ahead by 20 points.
Recent independent polling by SurveyUSA showed 55 percent of Mainers opposed to the tax cap. Forty-two percent were in favor. The poll of 648 likely voters was conducted Sunday through Wednesday and has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
Potholm stressed that the governor's involvement was key in aligning the opposition to the tax cap. Baldacci resisted pressure from state lawmakers to hold the vote last June when the proposal was significantly more popular.
"If this thing is defeated," Potholm said, "it's because of the leadership of Governor Baldacci."
Springer said the tax cap was not a partisan issue. Both Republicans and Democrats in town government are united in opposition to it.
"People who might be conservative on other issues realize that this is not the right way to go about it," he said.
Potholm's polling confirmed this. He said that Democrats, Republicans, and Independents oppose the plan in equal numbers.
Both Springer and Bradley urged Bowdoin students and the Brunswick community to vote against the cap. Potholm didn't encourage students either way.
"They should learn about the issues for themselves and go out and vote," Potholm said.