MMA’s 2005 Legislative Agenda

(from Maine Townsman, December 2004)
By Kate Dufour, Legislative Advocate, MMA

As the fall harvest is finally gathered and the first snowfall covers the ground, we are reminded of the new beginnings that surround us. In August, municipal officers statewide elected a new Legislative Policy Committee (LPC) for 2005-06. In November, a new state legislature was elected, which includes a slate of 60 lawmakers who have never served in the State House before. In December, new House and Senate leaders and constitutional officers were elected by the Legislature. In a few weeks, the New Year will begin.

In keeping with the spirit of new beginnings, MMA’s Legislative Policy Committee met on December 9 th and finalized its legislative agenda for the upcoming session. The central element of the LPC’s agenda is the implementation of the School Finance and Tax Reform Act of 2003. A sidebar to this article describes what will likely be considered an unusual proposal to be advanced by the municipal association, which seeks to change the way non-contracted county rural patrol costs are assessed on municipalities.

A description of seven other bills the LPC has developed is provided below. One of the new items on the legislative agenda will provide cost savings by authorizing municipalities to acquire and maintain streetlights. The LPC agenda also reflects a renewed interest in resolving on-going municipal issues. In one proposal, the LPC is supporting a new approach for addressing the overly broad property tax exemptions that are granted to non-governmental organizations.

Increasing Vital Record Fees. Since 1993, the fees municipalities can charge for providing a copy of a certified birth, marriage or death certificate has been set at $7 for the first copy and $3 for each additional copy. The fees collected by the state’s Department of Vital Records for the same certificates is $15 for the first copy and $6 for each additional copy. The purpose of the bill is not only to reasonably reimburse municipalities for the cost of maintaining the records and creating the certificates, but to also provide a rough parity between the fees charged at the municipal level, which are set by statute, and the fees charged at the state level, which are set by rule. The bill also increases the burial permit fee from $4 to $5.

Tax-Exempt Property. Over the last decade, the Legislative Policy Committee has developed and supported several proposals to alleviate the burden that property tax exemptions given to some property owners place on all other property taxpayers. In one attempt, the bill supported by MMA would have required a fee for municipal services provided directly to non-governmental entities. A second alternative sought to enact a set of standards governing eligibility for tax-exempt status. A third alternative would have required the tax-exempt entities to make payments in lieu of property taxes. Unfortunately, all approaches failed to receive legislative support.

This year the LPC is supporting a new approach that simply excludes land values from the otherwise blanket property tax exemptions provided to certain non-governmental organizations. By this approach, the land (but no other real or personal property) owned by benevolent and charitable institutions, literary and scientific institutions, veterans’ organizations, chambers of commerce, boards of trade and fraternal organizations would become taxable.

Motor Vehicle Fines Issued by Municipalities. Currently, six percent of fines and forfeitures collected for all traffic infractions are dedicated to the Law Enforcement Reimbursement Fund. The revenues accruing to the fund are used to reimburse municipalities and counties a $50 per diem for the time municipal and county law enforcement officials spend in court. Any revenue remaining in the Fund at the end of the fiscal year is transferred to the General Fund. Between 2001 and 2004, an average of $238,500 per year in revenue dedicated to reimbursing municipalities and counties was remitted to the state’s General Fund. In 2005, it is estimated that $628,320 will be returned to the General Fund.

The bill proposed by the LPC seeks to address this issue by requiring that the revenue remaining in the Fund at the end of the fiscal year be distributed to qualifying municipalities and counties on a population-based formula. Municipalities employing at least one full time law enforcement officer or municipalities that have a contract for rural service patrol with the county would qualify for additional reimbursement. The amount of additional reimbursement would be calculated by multiplying the municipality’s population factor by the total funds remaining in the Law Enforcement Reimbursement Fund at the end of the fiscal year. The population factor is calculated by dividing the munici-pality’s population by the total statewide population. In municipalities that do not employ at least one full time law enforcement officer or have a contract with the county for patrol services, the reimbursement that would have otherwise been provided to the municipality would be remitted to the county where the municipality is located.

Publication of Legal Notices. Existing law (Title 1, section 601) requires municipalities to post legal notices in newspapers that are mailed second class. This requirement prevents municipalities from exclusively using newspapers mailed in bulk, such as advertising shoppers, for providing public notice. Over the past five years, the LPC has supported bills providing municipalities the flexibility to determine how best to reach the residents of the community. However, opposition in the past from the newspaper lobby has stymied any efforts to move the issue forward. Fortunately, the tides are changing and some members of the newspaper lobby have expressed an interest in working with municipalities toward a solution. Encouraged by this newfound willingness to find some flexibility and an interest in redesigning this old state mandate, the LPC is once again supporting a bill to allow municipalities to exclusively publish legal notices in newspapers that are mailed in bulk.

As proposed, the bill allows municipalities to publish legal notices in a newspaper media distributed by bulk mail provided that the municipal officers adopt a publication policy meeting five requirements. In order to use the alternative media: 1) the newspaper of general circulation must have a subscription rate of less than 30% of the residents in the municipality; 2) all households in the municipality must receive the alternative newspaper; 3) the alternative newspaper must cost less than the newspaper of general circulation; 4) the municipality must retain a record of all notices published in the alternative newspaper; and 5) the publisher of the alternative newspaper must have a system of archiving past editions.

Municipal Acquisition of Streetlights. The LPC is supporting a bill that would expand the options available to municipalities regarding street lighting. Essentially the legislation would enable, at local option, the transfer of the street lighting program from its current utility-controlled function to a municipally-controlled function. The belief is that there is potential savings to the community by bringing this service within the municipal purview. This transfer would require some legislative changes which are provided in the proposal.

Correction to Poverty Abatement Law. In a case decided in 2004 (Hustus v. Town of Medway, 2004 ME 41), Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court held that there was no limitation in state law governing eligibility for a property tax abatement for poverty or infirmity that would allow a board of selectmen or town or city council to refuse to provide poverty-based property tax abatement to the owner of commercial property. The bill supported by the LPC creates a limitation by establishing what has always been understood to be the case; that is, a person may be found eligible for a so-called “poverty abatement” only with respect to his or her primary residential property.

Cost of State-initiated Elections. Frustrated with the growing cost of elections, the LPC is supporting a bill to require the state to pay for the cost of special elections initiated by the state. The bill makes a distinction between a regular and special election and holds the state financially responsible for any statewide election that is held outside of the June or November elections automatically scheduled by law.

If you would like more information on the bills described above, please contact the State and Federal Relation’s Laura Veilleux at 1-800-452-8786 or at lveilleux@memun.org and she will put you in touch with the staff member who drafted the legislation.