By Robert E. Macdonald
Mayor of Lewiston
Today in Lewiston we stand at a crossroad. Over the past several years prior city councils, our city administrator, our finance director, our development director and the many entrepreneurs located in the area of upper Lisbon and Main Streets have worked hard to create a vibrant downtown—a downtown that has become a destination.
We have listened to our young professionals; these young professionals represent Lewiston’s future. We have added bike lanes to our streets, nature trails and parks in neighborhoods throughout the city. We are slowly, but steadily, putting into place our Riverfront Plan. The Balloon Festival and the Dempsey Challenge bring thousands of people to Lewiston each year. These visitors spend large amounts of money at local businesses.
The soon-to-be-revived Film Festival put our area on the world map. The Hillside Riders Snowmobile Club and the monthly Lewiston Art Walks serve to showcase our city to people outside of our region.
But now we have reached a point where the gains made over the last several years may stagnate or possibly crumble. This is due to a word that affects federal, state and local governments, a word that affects businesses, families and individuals. That word is budget.
Over the last three to four years, Lewiston’s budget has been tightened. Travel and training have been virtually eliminated. We have underfunded the maintenance of city buildings, which results in greater costs when the defective problems are finally corrected. We are engaged in a game of budget Russian roulette, hoping that Mother Nature will spare us catastrophic weather, problems with our city equipment will not manifest themselves before they can be addressed and the hope we can avoid another major conflagration.
The city council is looking to eliminate all capital items from our operating budget and pay for them from our rainy day fund. This affects the city’s ability to stay on top of things that must be done every year, such as street paving and equipment replacement.
We are looking to use over $2 million from our rainy day fund. Our increased dependence on using this fund to cover expenses makes this an unsustainable level. This falling balance may affect our bond rating. If that happens, then we will no longer be able to use this source to fund city’s needs. This will result in increased taxes in order to pay for these needs or increasing the overall cost of our needs by borrowing the money.
The city council’s mandate of a zero tax increase will cause the city to look very closely at issuing new debt. Debt must be paid for. Any increase would require additional property taxes.
The future looks bleak. Federal funds have dried up. State funds have dried up. Revenue sharing will not be restored in the near future. Our assessed property values remain stagnant. Lewiston has little construction or business investment. Most of our remaining revenue sources are minor and can’t close these funding gaps.
The school department has used its rainy day fund. It has no unspent funds to carry forward in order to limit the impact of our school budget on the property tax rate.
Our property taxes are high, but without a responsible increase in the next budget we may see either a spike in our property taxes or a noticeable reduction of services—or both—in the future. Lewiston is moving forward. Over the last four or five years we have cut our budget and eliminated personnel while continuing to maintain the same level of service year after year.
In the upcoming budget, we must take a long hard look at where we are and where we want to go. Then we must calculate what it’s going to cost to get there—and fund it. A few pennies saved today may cost us several dollars tomorrow.