Nate: KRT Appraisal, which the City of Rockland hired to perform a real estate revaluation in 2019, recently released its proposed valuations of Rockland’s residential properties. The average change in valuation is an increase of 19 percent, but the specific numbers vary widely by neighborhood and property. The South End seems to have been hit hardest by increased property values, and therefore the concomitant increase in property taxes. The proposed valuation of the house that I own with my wife has increased by 44 percent. What is to be done?

Becca: We have talked about this a lot: how to keep Rockland affordable for those with little means.The valuation did need to be done, as in the last few years Rockland houses have been frequently selling for 200 percent–plus of the city’s assessment. The problem is that property tax is fundamentally unfair — it doesn’t factor in the poverty or wealth of the owners. I have suggested many things to try to help relieve the tax burden on poorer people: a local real estate transfer tax or fee that goes to a city-run housing system, in which houses and apartments stay at stable, affordable prices; a freeze on property tax for those who can’t afford it until the house is sold; a small hotel tax or fee; and a fee/tax on second homes. Unfortunately, you say the city lawyer thinks these can’t be done because of current Maine state laws.

Nate: Right. Funding municipalities via property taxes is a bad system if you believe that people should be able to live where they wish without being displaced by creeping gentrification, but the state severely restricts our ability to impose other taxes and fees or even make significant changes to how we handle property taxes. My solution [as a Rockland city councilor] is to do an end run around the issue of taxation by just giving people money. In August, I’m going to introduce an ordinance amendment to create a municipal basic income program in Rockland. My initial proposal will be limited in scale (up to 100 people getting $100 per month), but I want to get public feedback before proceeding further. If it passes the first vote in August and the second vote in September, it could start as soon as October.

Becca: Why only 100 people? Who will be in charge of the funds? How will someone qualify? What if that person doesn’t have a bank account (many poor people don’t have them, in part due to the fees that banks often charge if you can’t maintain a certain amount in an account)?

Nate: Only 100 people because I want this to be a fight I can plausibly win. 100 people would cost up to $120K/year (plus costs of printing, postage, and staff time). I think even that might be a tough sell. That said, City Council just passed a very forgiving $200,000 loan program for businesses, so why not give the same amount of money to individuals in this time of great need? The director of public welfare would be in charge of administering the program. I’m aware of the issue with checks but haven’t solved it yet — possibly we could just pay in cash. But also this is just a proposal! I’m hoping folks will send feedback, and I hope some of it is positive. I know it doesn’t go far enough, but it would be a pretty significant change in how we do things.

Becca: What about rent control? A living wage?

Nate: As far as I know, we are allowed by the state to enact rent control (that said, I haven’t researched this). Rent control isn’t part of this specific proposal, but I’d be willing to explore it in the future.

Becca: Also, how is this being funded? And how will we get the goddamned Maine state government to pass policies so that municipalities can stop themselves from turning into mere playgrounds for the rich?

Nate: My proposal ultimately would be funded via property taxes, though if it’s passed and enacted this fiscal year, I expect that the money would come out of the undesignated fund. I think of this proposal as having a long-term goal of making our tax system more progressive in effect, even if the actual part of the budget called “taxes” remains inflexible. How can we make it more flexible? Call your state representatives!

Becca: Given our current lack of options for local control, I like this idea. And I love that you are trying to make it a no-questions-asked, low-barrier system. But because this is meant to relieve the burden of high property taxes, and since it will be such a small program, I don’t think funding it via property taxes makes sense. I hope we can just find a rich benefactor to pay for it all!