November 18, 2019

Tax cap? Saco still split on pros, cons of ’79 vote

SACO – It was the summer of 1978.

Property owners here, shocked and fuming after seeing their taxes rise 21 percent in one year because of revaluations, virtually stormed City Hall to dispute their tax bills.

Five months later, in January 1979, Saco residents voted 2-to-1 to impose a property tax cap, the first in New England and “eerily similar,” some here say, to the Palesky tax cap, which would limit property taxes to 1 percent of their value if approved by Maine voters in November.

Many in Saco agreed the uprising was successful in one – and, some say, only one – aspect: It sent a message to city officials that enough was enough and it was time to tighten the belt.

“I don’t think you’ll find many people who will admit it, but it forced people to pay attention,” said J. Haley Booth, the city’s mayor at the time and one of the architects of the $3-million tax cap that forced the city to cut more than $650,000 from its annual budget.

But the Saco revolt did more than send a message, many here will tell you. And voters, after 16 months of reduced services, drastic cuts to education, and dozens of resulting layoffs, repealed the cap although without the same fervor with which they had approved it.

The original message of fiscal responsibility – much like the one backers of the proposed Palesky tax cap hope to send to Augusta lawmakers – came with some familiar assurances: There would be no need for drastic cuts. There were substantial savings to be found in the bloated city budget.

Bradley Paul, then a 24-year-old patrol officer, became one of those savings when he was laid off.

“It did send a message,” Paul, now the city’s police chief, said from behind his desk Wednesday. “The message just came with a price.”

The price, he said, was not only people. It also included longer response times from the city’s newly hired private ambulance service. It resulted in the layoffs of 10 others in the Police Department and 17 teachers. The city eliminated its curbside trash pickup and, most notoriously, fell into default with its creditors.

Booth, who has since moved to nearby Lyman, said many still blame him for the default, which occurred when the city was unable to repay a $2.1-million tax anticipation note.

Booth, now 70, contends the cap wasn’t entirely responsible for the default, which he blamed on bad counsel from the city’s financial adviser at the time.

He still contends the cap, which, like the Palesky proposal, included a way for voters to override the limit and a 2-percent annual increase to account for inflation, could have worked if given time.

“I was a capper. I am a capper, and I will vote for the cap this time,” he said, adding his resolve has been strengthened by “scare tactics” used by opponents.

But many in Saco, which this week is preparing for its annual pumpkin festival, found the results frightening indeed.

Paul still keeps his termination notice in a frame in his corner office. The notice is a reminder, he said, that “everyone is vulnerable, everyone is human.”

Paul said he was fortunate enough to find an interim job in Brunswick before returning to the Saco force. But he said the people he will be forced to fire if the Palesky cap passes will have no such safety net with other towns already bracing for similar cuts.

Susan Spath, Saco’s director of parks and recreation, is bracing for her own cuts. Her department was spared in 1979, but only because the school department eliminated all after-school programs, including athletics, at the middle school.

“They said we’d get by, that there was plenty of extra money,” Spath said, shaking her head in disbelief while walking in Pepperell Park. “Well, there is no magic money.”

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