Camden property taxes increase again. Want to know why?
As I am sure most have noticed, the town of Camden has raised our property taxes yet again.
This latest hike puts the overall increase in our property tax burden at over 20 percent since 2007. As If this isn’t ominous enough for Camden property owners, the percentage of our tax revenue going to support local schools has fallen precipitously, while the amount being used to fund our ballooning municipal budget is rapidly growing. In 2008, 64 percent of our property tax revenue was used to support our schools, 8 percent was used to support county government, and 28 percent was used to fund Camden's municipal budget. Today, only 60 percent goes to schools, municipal and solid waste disposal account for 8 percent and the municipal and tax increment financing (TIF) portion of the budget has grown to 32 percent. It is important to note that the majority of the 20 percent property tax increase and 4 percent growth in the municipal budget has occurred since the "Great Recession" of 2008, a period in which inflation has been negligible and responsible municipalities have been cutting spending, not increasing it.
None of us want to see our already high property taxes increased, so exactly why has this occurred? A few excellent examples of "why" presented themselves in June of this year. In fiscal year 2015, the Camden Snow Bowl lost $81,000. It backed up that shortfall with a whopping $216,303 loss in fiscal year 2016. Faced with a nearly $300,000 deficit, the Camden Select Board took bold action. They decided to spend an additional $70,000 of our money to purchase a new snow-making air compressor. The Select Board promoted this investment as a way to save money over the long-term, since, according to their somewhat suspect calculations, owning a compressor would be less costly than leasing it. However, the Select Board had a problem. It was quite likely that the majority of Camden residents would vote against approval of this $70,000 expenditure.
And that wasn’t the only significant spending that the Select Board wanted to approve. The Chestnut Street Baptist Church had requested $75,000 of our tax dollars to bolster its steeple restoration fund. It seems, because of an obscure historical arrangement, that the town of Camden owns the clock that resides in the steeple of the Chestnut Street Baptist Church. And it was the opinion of the Historic Resources Committee that Camden taxpayers should be responsible not just for the maintenance of the clock, but also for the renovation of the entire section of the steeple that the clock resides in. The Select Board agreed, but, again, it faced the same dilemma. For a variety of reasons, it was highly unlikely that the majority of Camden residents were going to approve this significant additional discretionary spending.
But the Camden Select Board members are nothing if not resourceful, and they formulated a rather clever plan. They decided not to put those controversial spending items on the paper ballot, and instead decreed that those particular items would be voted on via a "raised hand vote" at the annual Camden town meeting. A meeting that, as you might expect, very few people attend. But the Select Board members were not done yet. They cleverly bundled the air compressor and steeple spending in with three other totally unrelated spending initiatives. Those spending items were a drainage project on Harden Avenue, sewer pipe maintenance and new boat docking floats for the inner harbor.
When I asked the town manager why these controversial spending initiatives were not on the paper ballot, she stated that the town had decided that it wanted to "increase the number of people who attend the town meeting." I smiled when she gave that answer because it was such a clever way of saying that, in fact, the town wanted to disenfranchise the majority of the electorate and pack a small theater with people who wanted the spending initiatives approved. The numbers don’t lie. Approximately 1,000 Camden residents voted in the paper ballot election held June 14. The town meeting was held the next night in the Camden opera house auditorium, a performance space that seats about 200 people. And, surprise, it appeared that nearly a third of the people in the theater were members of the Chestnut Street Baptist Church. There were, of course, also a solid number of skiing enthusiasts. A motion was made to separate the spending initiatives and to vote on each individually. But, of course, it was easily voted down by the Baptist congregation and the Snow Bowl promoters. And, just as the Select Board had hoped, most people were unwilling to vote down the entire combined spending package. After all, we all want storm drains and sewers that don’t leak, right? So, the Camden Select Board successfully disenfranchised the majority of the electorate so that it could take our money and funnel it to well-connected special interests. And now our taxes are going up, again.
But perhaps even more disturbing than all this was a conversation I had with a current member of the Camden Select Board. When I expressed concern about the continuing property tax increases in Camden he made a number of statements that I found to be shocking. First, he stated that he had little sympathy for those who are being forced to sell their homes because "they make a lot of money when they sell." He also said that people shouldn’t complain about Camden’s taxes because they are not that high compared to those paid by property owners in Rockland. And as to whether the extremely high taxes on waterfront property is acceptable, he smiled and said, "we don’t want to kill the golden goose."
I strongly encourage you to contact all five members of the Camden Select Board and question them about their actions. Or, better yet, stop in and see the town manager when you deliver your "golden egg" to the town office on Oct. 17. Because, if you don’t, you can be sure that the Select Board is going to want an even larger one.
Gian-Angelo Gallace lives in Camden.