By Robert E. Macdonald
Mayor of Lewiston
It is time for a no-holds-barred venting on welfare reform. It is time for an accounting from our Lewiston state legislative delegation as to what they have done to help alleviate our current welfare crisis.
Over the next eight weeks, seven Lewiston residents elected to our city council will debate, ponder and come up with a city budget that places minimum fiscal distress on local property taxpayers while providing services needed to make sure we function and grow as a community. This is Lewiston, not Lourdes—there will be no forthcoming miracles. Property taxes will increase. The only question is: How much?
Lewiston has one of the lowest property value rates in the state. This is why a house is Southern Maine is valued three times or more than a similar one in Lewiston. This undervalue is reflected in our mil rate. At the end of the day, that similar house in Southern Maine is paying about the same or slightly more in taxes than you do in your undervalued home.
Since Lewiston is a service center, we find our school budget skyrocketing to levels, where, if people knew nothing about our community, they would come to the conclusion that only people named Rockefeller lived here. Nine Lewiston residents (one from each ward, one at-large and a city councilor) will be asked to perform the Herculean task of creating a budget that is fiscally sound and affordable to our local property taxpayers.
Like our city councilors, their debates and their efforts to comply with federal and state educational mandates will eventually lead them to pass a budget that will be unappreciated by many Lewiston residents, just as the work by our city councilors often goes unappreciated.
But this is the price we pay for being a service center—not just a service center, an extremely highly functioning center. Get off that Greyhound bus at the bus station on Oak Street, go two blocks east to City Hall and before you can say, Rip Van Winkle, our very efficient staff will have you signed up for every benefit you’re entitled to. This goes a long way in increasing the budget on the city side.
Then there is our school system. Broken and dysfunctional families bring baggage with them: their broken and dysfunctional children. Over the years this continuing problem has led to the development of expensive programs in the Lewiston school system to deal as successfully as possible with these broken children. Few school systems in Maine offer the high-quality program found in Lewiston. This is the result of our past and present school committees and superintendents defining, researching and instituting solutions in our system.
Unfortunately, doing a great job in instituting what must be done costs money. Thus, the frustrated wrath of Lewiston’s property-taxpaying citizens will be felt by each and every member of this committee.
Expensive schools, low property values, a dilapidated housing stock, abandoned buildings, an (imagined) out-of-control crime rate and an undeserved reputation statewide as the state’s welfare capital. This is a partial list of factors that drives down Lewiston property values and creates difficulty attracting people and businesses to our area.
And what word dominates the aforementioned list? Welfare.
Our residents know it. Our businesses know it. Lewiston City Hall knows it. But our local state legislators are either oblivious to the problem or are just plain ignoring it.
My first year as mayor, I went to Augusta and testified in favor of welfare reform. I was informed by none other than the Republican Speaker of the House, Rep. Robert Nutting, that welfare abuse was anecdotal. At least, that was the word inside the State House walls.
The following year, Lewiston removed 84 people from our welfare rolls for various degrees of fraud. This got legislative attention. A welfare reform bill submitted by Senator Garrett Mason of Lisbon at the request of Lewiston officials and staff was eventually killed in the Health and Human Service Committee by a 7-0 vote. Lewiston Senator and Committee Chair Margaret Craven cast one of the votes to kill the bill.
This year the Democratic majority led by a trustfunder, Senate President Justin Alfond, and a nonprofit business development director, House Speaker Mark Eves, are doing everything they can to forestall any type of welfare reform. And where are Lewiston’s representatives? S.A.U. (Silent, as usual.)
“What we don’t want to do is continue to play into election year politics and talk about things that aren’t even realistic and that just play into people’s fears, misunderstandings and stereotypes of the working poor,” spoke Mark Eves.
Alfond, Eves and Lewiston’s delegation will continue to try and convince the public that welfare reform is nothing more than “election year politics.” People are tired of the abuse and the failure of Democrats to address this abuse. The Democrats’ only shot, if they want to retain both the House and the Senate, is to convince you that welfare fraud is not a big deal and is basically anecdotal.
The question is: Are you going to believe it?