The Working Waterfront

Town meeting time on the islands

Swan's, Cranberrys find a better way

Rob Snyder
Posted 2015-04-17
Last Modified 2015-04-17

Town meeting is a celebration at best, or a tense endurance test at worst. Sometimes, it’s both. It really depends on what seat you’re in.

Emerging island leaders find themselves working alongside selectmen who’ve held their seats for decades. Each person in the audience has a personal relationship to every budget item on the warrant. It’s not supposed to be personal, but it is. All will raise their hands or not in full view of their neighbors, many of whom have given enormous volunteer hours to keep municipal government alive.

Amidst process and pageantry, old tensions simmer.

One such tension is born of Maine’s progressive property tax law. Those with the most valuable properties pay the highest taxes. By law, properties are taxed based on their highest and best use, a formula driven by real estate market forces. In general, those who own waterfront property pay far more in taxes than those who live inland.

More often than not, those who own these valuable waterfront parcels do not live in Maine year round, nor do they claim Maine as their home state. As a result, many of our neighbors in the seasonal community don’t have a vote in town meeting. There are many exceptions, but this is the norm.

This system is blind to a family’s ability to pay. A fishing family with an all-tide access wharf in a residential tax zone will have the same tax burden as a neighboring landholder who uses a wharf for recreational purposes. Maine’s working waterfront access preservation program is designed to help with this issue, and ought to be funded for this purpose.

Inland from the waterfront, year-round residents are aware of losses in tax revenue because of land wrapped up in conservation, tree growth and other non-profit vehicles that reduced the pool of property tax revenues available to support municipal functions.

Another trend worth noting at town meeting is that nonprofits’ revenues are increasingly tied to town warrants. As multigenerational summer families sell off their properties, the revenues for these organizations becomes more uncertain. Today, these are small budget lines sprinkled here and there. They are approved because year-round residents understand that these organizations provide crucial community services. This increases the relationship between municipal government and the nonprofit sector, and at the same time places additional tax burden on all residents, with a large proportion landing on those with the most valuable land.  

The warrant is an expression of the town’s need to meet residents’ day-to-day needs and it is statement of future aspirations. Warrants that have drawn the most attention in the past couple of years include large capital projects such as broadband infrastructure, public buildings, and transportation investments. They speak to a community’s intention to endure.

When taxes increase too much year-in and year-out, both seasonal and year-round community members suffer. Year-round residents don’t want to see their taxes increase by $250 per year any more than their neighbors in the summer community wants to see their taxes increase by $5,000 for the same decision. When this happens year-in and year-out, everyone begins to feel less generous.

The process through which these aspirational items land on the warrant can be perceived as either antagonistic, or as a source of pride. It depends on the community process through which these items land on the warrant.

The municipal advisory committees (MAC) on Swan’s Island and the Cranberries could provide an example of how to manage these tensions. Such groups can be made up of seasonal and year-round residents. They are advisory boards to selectmen, and perhaps more importantly, can be a source of communication between the various constituencies that inhabit any single island community.

At their best, MACs can function as an important source of consensus building around the town warrant. A difficult job to be sure, but done well, MACs can help communities navigate the difficulties of participating in local government created by our tax code.

Rob Snyder is president of the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront. Follow Rob on Twitter @ProOutsider.