Augusta councilors envision multiple goals in brainstorming session (KJ)

The proffered ideas include a local minimum wage, fighting heroin use, Statler mill site development, more recycling and inspecting all rental property.

AUGUSTA — City councilors’ proposed goals for the year include instituting a local minimum wage, bringing development to the former Statler mill site, improving the appearance of the city, eliminating heroin use, inspecting all rental properties and expanding recycling.

Those and other potential goals — councilors will meet later this year to try to come to agreement on a final set of goals to adopt — were put up for discussion Saturday at a session in which councilors sought to establish goals for the city to accomplish, or at least start working on, in 2015.

Their goals were wide-ranging, with one councilor proposing a local minimum wage somewhere above the current federal minimum of $7.25 per hour, and nearly all councilors agreeing that attracting private development to the Statler site, renamed Kennebec Lockes by the city, is a priority.

Ward 4 Councilor Anna Blodgett advocated for a local minimum wage in Augusta.

However, City Manager William Bridgeo warned “there may be some legal issues with a municipality adopting a minimum wage. Since it is a huge public policy issue, I suggest staff provide you as much information about it as we can.”

City councilors in Portland are considering a proposal to raise the minimum wage there to $9.50. Blodgett said officials in Bangor are considering one as well.

Multiple councilors said the city should take action this year to improve the aesthetics of the city, including both public and private property.

That could include strengthening the city’s property maintenance ordinance to require building owners to maintain their property to a certain minimum standard, an ordinance requiring the owners of vacant property to maintain it, and the city improving the appearance of trees in the median strip of Western Avenue and properly maintaining its aging buildings, including Hussey Elementary School, so they don’t fall into disrepair.

Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said the city staff, primarily the code enforcement office but also the Fire Department and possibly the Police Department, should inspect every rental property in the city to make sure it meets life safety codes. She said while going door-to-door campaigning, she noticed many buildings with only wooden steps nailed to exterior walls to serve as fire escapes. She said the issue is one of both safety and aesthetics.

“I think we need to really push these people who own these buildings to really step up to the plate,” Conti said. “A lot of the rental buildings are owned by absentee landlords.”

At-Large Councilor Jeffrey Bilodeau said ridding the city of heroin should be a priority. He suggested putting up signs with a phone number people could call to report heroin use or sale.

“It is an epidemic moving this way, and I don’t want it here,” Bilodeau said.

At-Large Councilor Dale McCormick said a goal should be to broaden the city’s recycling program so Augusta residents can recycle more items, as many types of materials as already are accepted for recycling in some surrounding towns. She also said the city should assess the sidewalks in the city, with a goal of making a more livable, connected, walkable city.

Councilors discussed what the city should do to retain existing businesses and attract new ones.

Ward 2 Councilor Darek Grant said it was frustrating to lose Emery’s Meats, which recently moved from Augusta to Gardiner, in part because Gardiner offered financial incentives to draw the business to move there. He said it was unfortunate that Gardiner “poached” the business, as some described the move; but Augusta and other cities “don’t want to get into a race to the bottom, and throw as much money as we can at a business to lure business here, or just to keep them here.”

Steve Pecukonis, downtown manager and executive director of the independent Augusta Downtown Alliance, said the goal of downtowns and municipalities should not be to poach businesses from other Maine communities, but instead to “grow the pie so there is more to go around” by improving the overall business climate.

Pecukonis said ways the city could help efforts to revitalize the downtown include considering an ordinance requiring buildings to be maintained to a certain minimum level. He said a couple of run-down buildings on Water Street, between Bridge Street and Mill Park, are unattractive and hamper efforts to revitalize the area and connect Mill Park to the rest of the downtown.

At-Large Councilor Cecil Munson said the city needs to work with officials of the Greater Augusta Utility District to bring public water and sewer lines to the Riggs Brook area along Route 3, without which, he said, significant commercial development will never occur there.

Councilors and local state legislators who attended the session noted they’re setting goals and discussing funding in the shadow of an unclear state funding picture, because of several significant proposals from Gov. Paul LePage to change the current structure and system of income, sales and property taxes in Maine. The governor’s sweeping proposal generally would reduce income taxes, increase and broaden sales taxes, eliminate state revenue sharing to municipalities and allow, but not require, municipalities to tax large nonprofit organizations, including hospitals.

Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said the net effect of the proposed changes, which would require legislative approval, would be a $300 million reduction in taxes Maine residents pay.

Katz said the general idea of the change is to shift some of the tax burden from Maine residents by decreasing income taxes, which he said are paid by 1.3 million Mainers, and increasing and broadening sales taxes, which he said are paid by 27 million people. He said the proposal to allow municipalities to tax nonprofit organizations with more than $500,000 of assessed value would provide a way for cities and towns to recoup some of the cost of providing services to nonprofits. The proposal excludes churches and government-owned facilities.

Ward 3 City Councilor Patrick Paradis suggested that if the city will be allowed to tax nonprofits such as MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Augusta hospital, it also should be allowed to tax, or charge a fee in lieu of taxes on, state government buildings, which could be a boon to Augusta, home of numerous state buildings.

“If nonprofits can be taxed, why can’t state government pay its fair share for services provided by the city?” Paradis said.

Mayor David Rollins said among his top goals for the city for 2015 are establishing an ordinance setting standards for the upkeep of vacant buildings, establishing historic districts in the city, and improving the quality of the local workforce.

He also suggested what he called the “small idea” of having each ward councilor partner with an at-large councilor to work with residents in their wards to come up with and accomplish a neighborhood project together.

“Reach out to your wards, find a project for the year and mobilize people to help,” Rollins said. “Over four years, all of a sudden you’d have 16 new projects around town. It requires some initiative on all our parts.”

Bridgeo said he would work with Rollins and consultant Frank O’Hara, who facilitated the more-than-five-hour goal-setting session at the Augusta Civic Center, to come up with a set of draft goals to present to councilors for their consideration at a City Council meeting.

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