Municipal Budgets & Conservation
Data Working Group
Municipalities in Maine face many challenges in maintaining balanced budgets. Among them, a decrease in state revenue sharing and funding for general purpose aid to education, impacts from tree growth and open space tax laws, property tax revenue loss from Federal, state, private or non-profit conservation lands, and other lands in some form of non-profit status. The loss of revenue and increase in costs have meant rising property taxes and the increase in property taxes has a disproportionate impact on the poor and elderly. The Municipal Budgets and Conservation Working Group is a collaborative group of conservation professionals, researchers, municipal leadership, selectboard members, and town managers and others who have joined together to collect and analyze data on the many factors impacting municipal budgets in the Downeast region and across the state of Maine. Our goals are to gather and share information and encourage collaboration based on data, rather than perceptions, to generate innovative solutions to municipal budget pressures.
We recognize well-planned conservation projects can provide economic benefit to a community and can reduce property tax revenue, which has impacted the relationship between conservation organizations and their communities. Our broad partnership has identified a lack of information and communication as the main barrier to addressing these challenges collaboratively on a local and state-wide level.
The Municipal Budget and Conservation Working Group is based in the Downeast region but is focused on addressing the impacts of state-wide policies on rural municipalities across the state of Maine.
Current Data Working Group Participants:
- Adam Daigneault, University of Maine
- Kate Dufour, Maine Municipal Association
- Judy East, Land Use Planning Commission, DACF
- Renee Gray, Town of Lubec
- Kate Jans, Maine Coast Heritage Trust
- Tora Johnson, University of Maine at Machias
- Melissa Lee, Maine Coast Heritage Trust
- Mary-Alice Look, Town of Whiting
- Bill MacDonald, Washington County Council of Governments
- Jeanne Peacock, City of Eastport
- Lewis Pinkham, Town of Milbridge
- Jeff Romano, Maine Coast Heritage Trust
- Cynthia Rowden, Town of Cutler
- Rachel Rubeor, Town of Lubec
- Jacob van de Sande, Maine Coast Heritage Trust
- Gabby Sherman, University of Maine
- Natalie Springuel, Maine Sea Grant
- Erin Witham, Downeast Conservation Network
Please get in touch with us if you would like to be involved by emailing Erin Witham at [email protected]
Working Group Goals
This project is a first of its kind opportunity for conservation organizations and towns to collaborate on solutions to this issue in a comprehensive way. Our goal is to create innovative solutions to the challenges our communities face with balancing municipal budgets. Building on the strength of our established and diverse collaboration, we have engaged a broad group of stakeholders and designed a research project that will promote decision-making based on data rather than perceptions, while also taking into consideration the very localized nature of municipal budgets. The project will answer questions that community members, leaders in municipal government, and conservation organizations in Downeast Maine have been asking about the breadth of fiscal impacts on municipal budgets, including conservation, current use taxation, and state revenue sharing, among others, and help us understand the full picture of the pressures on our communities.
While data about land conservation, taxes, and current use programs in Maine has been analyzed in various ways, our group has identified that a comprehensive analysis is needed to address misunderstandings & assumptions to understand the relative contribution of each factor in order to develop recommendations that will truly address the complex fiscal challenges our communities face.
The Working Group was intentionally created to develop a transparent and collaborative process to gather data and information and to identify the key research questions. Once the research process is complete, the next step will be to generate credible, community-informed solutions with far-reaching benefits.
How did the Working Group get established?
In December of 2018, a group of 25 municipal officials and staff from conservation organizations came together to discuss the topic of “Conservation & Communities” at the Washington County Council of Governments’ Annual meeting. This event was held in partnership as part of Downeast Conservation Network’s Downeast Dialogue series. For many involved in conversations about taxes and conservation for decades, this was seen as a breakthrough event.
The meeting was initiated in part to allow for a conversation about a recent study commissioned by Downeast Conservation Network to comprehensively assess the economic contributions of conservation lands to the surrounding communities. The results of the study were published in a report titled Valuing the Economic Benefits of Conserved Land in Downeast Maine. The report includes economic valuation of ecosystem services provided by regional conserved lands: benefit transfer valuation of non-market ecosystem services, direct valuation of market-based ecosystem services, and calculations of visitor spending effects and employment contributions to the local economy. While this study helped fill important data needs, it was not intended to explore the larger suite of impacts, including but not limited to land conservation, on municipal budgets. A need to research on these larger topics was identified. Click here to learn more about the Economic Benefits study.
In April 2019, a group met again to follow up on the conversation to identify actions we could take together to address these needs. The group came to consensus that one of the significant needs to move forward on this issue was data & information. Therefore the Municipal Budgets and Conservation Working Group was established with individuals from municipal organizations and leadership and conservation organizations joining the group. Since then, the Working Group has met regularly to build consensus around research needs, strengthen relationships, and focus on raising funds to complete a study.
Working Group Accomplishments
The Working Group has initiated a study, working with graduate-level students at the University of Maine Orono – School of Forest Resources. The work is being conducted under Dr. Adam Daignault, Assistant Professor of Forest, Conservation, and Recreation Policy. The Working Group will support students to direct a comprehensive analysis of data and information about land use, and tax related issues as they pertain to municipal budgets. Ultimately, the group hopes to provide information to help towns navigate tax burden challenges and provide policy recommendations to address local impacts throughout the state. As of September 2020, this research is just beginning.
From the stakeholders we have engaged so far, we have heard it will be important to quantify the impacts on a town level of the following programs
- current use taxation programs (e.g. open space & tree growth)
- federal and state reimbursement structures (e.g. National Wildlife Refuge systems)
- state revenue sharing
- state aid to education
- property tax exemptions including conservation lands
- various payment in lieu of taxes systems
The group has also worked to find opportunities where Working Group members can contribute to efforts to increase revenue to municipalities from state and federal government.
In 2019, letters from conservation organizations and municipalities were submitted to Maine’s Congressional Delegation regarding need to fully fund Federal Wildlife Refuge funding reimbursements
In 2019, Maine Coast Heritage Trust gave testimony in support of increasing state revenue sharing to municipalities. The testimony was in support of LD 1278: RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine Requiring the State To Share Not Less Than 5 Percent of State Sales and Income Tax Revenue with Municipalities.
Stay in Touch
-Our group will be sharing quarterly updates to share the latest results and accomplishments.
-To sign up to receive updates from the Working Group – click here and fill out the form.
Local News Coverage
For more information about the background of this issue and the working group, check out these local news articles:
“Group tackles land conservation programs’ impact on local taxes” The Quoddy Tides, December 14, 2018
“A coastal conundrum – taxes or tourism” The Working Waterfront, August 13, 2019
“Group to study impact of conserved lands” The Quoddy Tides May 22, 2020
Data and Research
A study of the financial and nonfinancial aspects of conserved lands owned by nonprofit conservation organizations, including property taxes paid, community benefits realized and value of lands to the State’s economy.
This project is made possible by funding from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation and the Maine Community Foundation – Community Building Grant Program, along with the time and resources donated by our working group members.