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Only Steps Forward: Water district, 911 expenses will increase burden on taxpayers

By Jonathan P. LaBonte

Mayor of Auburn

Last week in my report, I predicted the Auburn City Council would find a means in the upcoming budget process to reduce the tax burden on its taxpayers.

That task became difficult on January 1 when two things happened: Androscoggin County confirmed a property tax increase of nearly 7% and the Auburn Water District has floated increasing their rates by nearly 20%.

While the county tax increase was set in stone when the budget committee failed to find a means to reduce county expenditures, a major driver of increased county spending over time has been the county-based 911 communications–a system that Auburn subsidizes through its property taxes, only to have to fund 50% of a duplicative system at LA 911.

In the fall of 2016, Auburn hosted a joint workshop with the City of Lewiston where staff rolled out a multi-million-dollar modernization program for the system.  Despite Auburn calls for service being less than 50% of the total, we find ourselves beholden to a negotiated rate from decades ago

Councils in recent years have struggled with how to get Auburn taxpayers out from under this massive burden. In fact, on August 17, 2015, a unanimous vote of the council was cast directing the city management team to request a quote from Androscoggin County for the provision of 911 emergency dispatch services. This was intended to be the first step in trying to negotiate a better position for our taxpayers.

Whether or not Auburn would act favorably on the proposal would be a later debate, but this was a crucial first step to document how the county service rates would apply to Auburn. Unfortunately, city management have yet to act on this council directive of 16 months ago, leaving us entering the upcoming budget still stuck with the highest bill.

There are only a few months left before the Auburn City Council will be asked to raise their hands to support paying 50% of the upgrade to LA 911 and locking us into higher taxes for years to come. I will be lobbying the council to push management to get the county proposal in writing before then, but you should consider calling your city councilor to ask them to do the same. There’s still time.

On the water district front, many of you have likely already seen the public relations machine of government in full swing with the public notice mailed to all water customers, breaking down the increase for residential customers as “just” 12 more cents a day. What a deal!

In addition to the residential and business rate increases of 19.7%, the property taxpayers will get hit with the 7.9% increase in public fire protection. Auburn taxpayers pay annually to the water district for the hydrants in the community that serve as part of our fire protection system. That cost in the current fiscal year is nearly $600,000.

While you won’t see it in your water bill, it’s now an added cost the city council will need to deal with in its upcoming budget. In just a few fiscal years, operating expenses have increased by about 15% at the water district.

Despite repeated attempts by elected officials to request that Auburn city management and public works staff meet with the Auburn Water and Sewer district to assess streamlining use of personnel and equipment, no such evaluation has taken place to eliminate redundancy and duplication of effort before smacking the taxpayers and ratepayers with increases.

On top of that, on an annual basis we are still seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent acquiring land around Lake Auburn to take it off the tax rolls. With the closure of Cascades Fiber, most of us expected there to be a need for a rate increase because of the volume of water they used. But we also expected there to be some belt tightening first.

A public hearing is being held in Auburn Hall on January 18 at 5 p.m. if you want your voice heard.There can be no question that a strong, modern 911 system and a safe, reliable drinking water system are essential city services. And both should be provided at the lowest necessary cost to taxpayers.

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