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Governor’s Address: Taking conservation land off tax rolls increases the burden on homeowners

Too many Maine families are facing skyrocketing property taxes that strain household budgets. Our elderly on fixed incomes are particularly vulnerable to these increases.

School budgets are often blamed for annual increases in property taxes. But there’s another reason. A tremendous amount of land and property value has been taken off the tax rolls, leaving homeowners to pick up the tab.

At the state level, my administration is actively working to put long-held, unused property back on the tax rolls. The new DHHS building in Augusta is a prime example.

We sold the property to a private owner who will now pay taxes to the City of Augusta. DHHS will lease the office space in the new building and save money over the life of the lease – a win for the state, the city and taxpayers. But too many communities don’t benefit from this kind of partnership.

As of 2016, towns and cities owned land and buildings valued at nearly $5.5 billion statewide. Large and wealthy non-profits, such as hospitals and colleges, often escape paying property taxes on their vast real estate holdings—totaling more than $5.1 billion statewide.

Even worse, the balance between economic growth and conservation is lopsided. In Maine alone, 2.2 million acres of land have been set aside for conservation by the federal and state governments and non-profit organizations, including land trusts. When combined with easements, nearly 20 percent of our state is conserved from development at a time when we should be promoting growth and economic development.

The total estimated value of land that has been either removed from the tax rolls or prohibited from development is $1.8 billion.

Municipalities are losing out on property taxes on all that land value. The cost of municipal services has shifted to local homeowners, who subsidize the loss of all that value by paying higher property taxes.

It’s time to recognize the results of taking property off the tax rolls and identify solutions to reduce the burden on our homeowners.

Our administration has proposed allowing municipalities to collect property taxes or fees from large non-profit entities, and we’ve tried to require land trusts to contribute to the tax rolls. We’ve been met with staunch resistance.

Now we established an online registry for all non-profits that own conservation land. So far, 84 organizations have met their obligations and submitted over 1,700 entries. The data is stunning.

In 1996, about 35,000 acres of land were documented as land-trust owned. That number has increased by an astonishing 1,200 percent. Land trusts now control over 422,000 acres with an estimated value of $344 million.

We must restore the balance. We will be working this session to ensure all land owners are contributing to the local tax base.

It’s time for them to pay their fair share.

Thank You,

Paul R. LePage

Governor

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