Real change happens when large numbers of people come together to demand it. No one changes anything by themselves. Here are a few stories of concrete ways that Ben has been a leader on teams that have made a difference in improving the lives of people in Lewiston—and beyond.
Property taxes in Lewiston have continued to rise. Only two things have happened in the last eight years that meaningfully helped people in Lewiston with their property taxes: expansion of the property tax fairness credit, and increasing the value of the homestead exemption. Ben played a key role in both those efforts, and they have resulted in saving hundreds of dollars each year for thousands of Lewiston families.
Originally, the state had a “circuit breaker” program, that required homeowners and tenants (who pay property taxes through their rent) to fill out a separate form if their property taxes consumed more than a certain amount of their income. Very few people filled out that form. As a result, it became a line on the state’s income tax form, so that more people would know to use it. (It’s line 25d here—you may qualify!) To increase the funding available for the program, as the political director for Maine People’s Alliance, Ben worked with economists, lawyers, conservative Republicans, progressive Democrats, and independent State Senator Dick Woodbury to craft a modification to the program that greatly expanded the property tax relief it provides.
Secondly, Ben has consistently spent long hours in the state’s Taxation and Appropriations committees, working to expand the value of the homestead deduction. It required working with many of Lewiston’s legislative delegation, especially former Representatives Rotundo and Carey. At the end of the day, the value of the homestead deduction has doubled, meaning that this year up to $20,000 of the value of people’s homes will escape property taxation. In Lewiston, that means homeowners can save $550 this year, if they file for the homestead exemption.
From the day Ben launched his first bid for mayor in 2015, he has talked about the need for the state to pay its fair share of local school funding. Not only has the state illegally denied Lewiston its federal Title 1 dollars, it has never lived up to its commitment to fund 55% of the cost of local public education. Ben was an early and active supporter of the Stand Up for Students referenda that voters passed in 2016, taxing the wealthy a little bit more to pay for public education. Although the legislature chose to give most of the new revenue generated back to the wealthy in the third tax break they’ve received in six years, the referenda still ensured that $160 million more in school funding will move out to Maine communities, including Lewiston. That is the highest level of state funding for schools since the recession began, and it’s critical in ensuring we can finance the costs of our young community.
Blocking “Pay as You Throw” Trash
Two years ago, the city was considering an ill-devised proposal called “Pay as you throw” trash pick up, where residents would have to buy special, expensive trash bags to receive curb side trash pick up. Ben led the public effort to block the proposal, urging Lewiston residents to sign a petition against the plan, and supporting council candidates like Jim Lysen (Ward 1) who also opposed it. After the election, even though Ben didn’t win, the public outcry against the proposal was so clear that in just a few months the proposal was dead.
Winning stricter code enforcement against Lewiston’s worst landlords
After Maine People’s Alliance released its report detailing how a few of Lewiston’s worst landlords violated code laws and owned an outsized amount of property, landlords like Joe Dunne, Rick Lockwood, and Ted West finally began to be held publicly accountable for their actions. Although Dunne put up racist signs against Ben that received national attention, city officials began to act. When Rick Lockwood’s building was slated to be demolished, outside of which Ben held the press conference releasing the housing report, the Sun Journal noted the role Ben played in drawing attention to the issue. Although we have a long way to go, just running for office has shown the impact Ben can have on an issue like housing. As mayor, working together with community organizations and good landlords, there’s a lot more that can be done!
Protecting Seniors: Prescription Drug Assistance and Expanding Access to Homecare
Ben has spent long hours in Augusta fighting back against the cuts to prescription drug assistance that Gov. LePage consistently proposes (Drugs for the Elderly, and the Medicare Savings programs). Heidi Brooks, now a state Representative from Lewiston, remembers holding vigil with Ben for nearly forty-eight hours straight in Augusta, working together to successfully protect these life-saving policies that she relied on. These policies ended up receiving bi-partisan supermajorities to ensure their protection.
Additionally, Ben has recently authored a vision for universal access to homecare for seniors and people with disabilities, to ensure all people have the means to age with dignity outside a nursing home, whenever possible. This plan is paid for by closing the loopholes that allow the wealthy to avoid paying payroll taxes.
Over one in three workers in Lewiston will be receiving a raise between now and 2020, thanks to the minimum wage increase passed by Lewiston voters in 2016. Ben led the volunteer signature collection and voter contact efforts for the statewide coalition to ensure the measure’s placement on the ballot and eventual passage. Wages for working class Americans have been stagnant for over a generation. This policy represents some of the only economic gains working class people in Lewiston have seen in decades.