Less than six months after repealing a Proposition 13-sytle property tax limitation, residents of this small coastal city are still bitterly divided over how the community's purse strings should be handled.
For the past year and a half, the city has been on a financial roller coaster ride, one that has taken it from the heights of uncertainty to the depths of a default.
In 1978, the city was split in two when citizens tax revolt led to the adoption of Maine's first California-style municipal spending ceiling.
Voters repealed the controversial measure last month after seeing municipal services crippled by mass layoffs and watching the city plunge into the worst financial crisis of its history.
But the repeal did little to heal the division that has pitted friend against friend and family against family for more than a year.
There is still widespread disagreement over whether the $3 million tax limitation was solely responsible for the city's financial troubles. But a growing number believe that the year-long experiment with limited taxes has compounded Saco's problems enough to make the banking community hesitant to lend it money.
"we've made real progress in the last few months," said city Administrator Curtis W. Tripp, who took the helm last year, "but we're not completely out of the woods yet. There are till a lot of uncertainties facing us when we begin 1981."
The uncertainties stem largely from a major financial crisis last December, when the city defaulted on a $2.1 million bank loan and found its cash assests frozen by its principal note holders.
Although the city managed to meet its payrolls in the following months -- with a high-interest, short-term bank loan that was later refinanced as part of a $2.2 million tax anticipation note -- the taxing limitation continued to cloud the city's ability to pull itslef out of its financial quagmire.
This spring, a group of residents who were concerned about the growing financial problems and the drastic cutbacks in city and school services managed to muster enough support to have the tax ceiling defeated in a special referendum.
With the limitation gone, Tripp observed, "I think things can begin to take shape financially, although it's going to take some time and a lot of care." He noted that the banks' reluctance to lend the city money has brought Saco to the brink of financial disaster several times since last year's paralyzing default.
But not everyone agrees that the repeal will solve the city's financial problems.
In fact, the debate over how the city's money should be managed and its taxes raised is once again rising from th dust.
Robert Cassette, the Saco resident who wrote the original tax limitation measure, noted that the voters who came out to repeal the it last month "did so because they expected certain services to be restored.
"But here we are a month and a half later," he said, "an it doesn't look as though those services that everyone screamed about are going to be put back into the budget."
After the ceiling was first imposed, city and school officials made sweeping budget cuts, laying off more than 50 of the school system's teachers and municipal employes. Among the services to go were the municipal rubbish collection and the city's amubulance.
"A lot of people are very disturbed that the ambulance hasn't been restored yet," Cassette observed, noting that the city council hadn't included it in its proposed supplemental budget. The council has earmarked $40,000 for ambulance service, but local residents believe that this won't be enough to start the service up again.
Cassette and many others think the tax limitation wasn't given a chance to work. Some have charged that city officials deliberately cut vital services such the ambulance just to try to prove that the tax measure wouldn't work.
"There's no question in my mind that the property tax limitation wasn't given a chance," Cassette said.
But he added that many supporters of the measure have conceded that the spending limit -- which set the property tax levy at $3.03 million and allowed for a 2 percent increase per year -- was too severe a limit and "needed some adjustment."
But Newton Sanborn, a local resident who once served on the city council, doesn't see it that way.
"The tax cap was the most damaging thing that ever happened to this city," said Sanborn, who was active in the drive to repeal the measure. "The repeal -- under the circumstances -- was the best thing that could have happened."