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South Portland disputes TABOR proponents' ethics complaint over property tax mailing

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South Portland disputes TABOR proponents' ethics complaint over property tax mailing

SOUTH PORTLAND — The state Commission on Government Ethics and Election Practices on Nov. 19 will consider a request to investigate whether the city broke the law when it sent a mailing to 9,300 homeowners expressing opposition to two statewide ballot questions.

The mailing, included in property tax bills sent out earlier this month, stated the City Council's opposition to Question 2, which would cut the vehicle excise tax, and Question 4, the second so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

The TABOR Now campaign filed a complaint with the ethics commission on Oct. 14, because it believes the city spent more than $5,000 to include the flier in the property tax bills. That expenditure would require the city to register with the state as a ballot question committee, which it did not do.

City officials, however, said they only spent $564 and have broken no campaign laws. 

The disputed flier includes the full wording of Question 2 and Question 4 and two explanations about how the initiatives would affect South Portland.

The flier says excise tax revenue would be cut in the middle of the current budget and that "South Portland stands to loses $1.9 million in revenue per year if this initiative passes." For Question 4, the flier reminds residents that TABOR was defeated by voters in 2006 and would in some cases mandate citywide referendums for approving municipal budgets. 

Johnathan Wayne, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said there are three issues to be considered by the commission when it meets on Nov. 19: how much the city spent on the mailings, whether it sought to influence or inform residents, and whether state statute language includes municipalities by defining "persons" as an "individual, committee, firm, partnership, corporation, association or organization."

City Manager Jim Gailey said the city only meant to inform residents about the ballot questions, not influence them, noting that the information on the flier was completely factual. The flier, which was drafted with the help of the Maine Municipal Association with input from its lawyers, directed residents seeking more information to the city Web site, where links are provided to both sides of the debate.  

Gailey said the mailing was only one of the ways the city is trying to educate voters. A presentation by the MMA, which opposes the referendums, is being run on community television, he said.

"We had a goal of educating as many people as possible, whether they are for or against the referendum," Gailey said. "The council decided the most cost-effective way to do that was the tax bill, because it goes out the first of October." 

Gailey said the $564 cost of the flier is a figure that includes staff time and materials. But TABOR 2 campaign manager David Crocker said the city should also include half of the total cost for mailing the property tax bills, as well as staff time used to prepare the two resolutions unanimously approved by the City Council.

Even if the city didn't cross the threshold for having to register as ballot question committee, Crocker said, as a matter of principal, the city shouldn't be sending what he views as a political flier in property tax bills. 

"We're just outraged the city would use taxpayer resources," to try to influence the vote, Crocker said. "This is our money being used to tell us what to do."

Crocker said he believes the city was trying to send a less-than-subtle message by using tax bills as a vehicle to deliver the information.  

"In effect, the city is saying that if you vote for this, your property tax bill is going to increase," he said. "And, by the way, here's your property tax bill."

South Portland has until Friday, Oct. 30, to file a response with the commission. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net