Money, Wind Worry Town Meeting Voters

(from Maine Townsman, April 2010)
By Liz Chapman Mockler

Holding down the property tax rate while revenues decline and unemployment remains stubbornly high drove many of the decisions made during scores of Maine annual town meetings in March.

An estimated 60 percent of municipalities with a town meeting form of government still gather in the slush and rain of March to pass local budgets and debate thorny issues. Nearly all of the rest hold meetings in May and June to coincide with the state and school districts’ fiscal years, allowing them to pass budgets based on firmer revenue sharing, highway and school funding estimates.

This year, many elected officials gave up increases in their “pay” despite increased workloads and meetings. Municipal staff members in many towns were given modest wage increases. However, voters in other communities, lamenting unemployment and tight household budgets, declined even cost-of-living raises for employees.

Voters in many towns were tough on social-service agencies, which typically ask for an annual contribution based on the number of people they serve in a particular town.

In Brownville, for example, residents voted to budget $3,035 for cemeteries for the coming year, and $1,000 for general assistance – a safety net for residents who may need heat or food.

That decision led one resident to observe, “We’re taking care of our dead better than we are our living,” according to a published report.

Blowing in the wind

Aside from the typical financial concerns, discussions and decisions, some the most debated questions this March centered on wind power construction.

Most of the proposed moratoriums focused on commercial, not residential, projects. And the majority of towns that took up the issue were being proactive, since there were no proposed projects pending in their towns.

Of the 10 proposed wind-development moratorium votes reviewed by the Townsman, seven were passed and three failed.

Voters who favored six-month bans on turbine construction wanted to give town officials time to craft ordinances to regulate the “green” power-generating projects. They were concerned about noise, proximity of turbines to homes and scarring some of Maine’s most rural and rugged places.

Those who opposed the moratoriums were concerned about: possibly passing up future projects and jobs; negatively impacting projects already on the table for review; and losing a potentially lucrative, new revenue source for cash-strapped small towns.

Under state law, local voters may enact 180-day moratoriums on wind-power projects, while local ordinances are being considered. Municipal officers can extend the moratoriums for 180 additional days.

Municipal ordinances can focus on setback and height restrictions and limits on how much noise a project can create.

Voters in the town of Eddington, Penobscot County, passed a moratorium, although a committee had spent eight months working on an ordinance.

Meanwhile, in Woodstock in western Maine, voters rejected a ban by a vote of 100 to four, and agreed that a plan to build a wind farm on Spruce Mountain would move forward as expected this summer.

Voters in the town of Unity, a community of 1,900 in Waldo County, rejected a moratorium out of fear that it would prevent residential construction of wind turbines for domestic use. The vote was nearly unanimous, according to reports.

In Montville, voters passed a moratorium last year, followed this spring by enactment of a strict wind-power ordinance that calls for a one-mile setback from homes but exempts turbines from regulation if they are less than 150 feet high or produce fewer than 100 kilowatts of power a year.

The new Montville ordinance passed by a vote of 90-39.

As the so-called “Green Energy” economy continues to blossom across the state and nation, more Maine towns are expected to debate the merits of wind power facilities in their own backyards.

In other voting on special ordinances, voters in the town of Alfred in far southern Maine rejected restrictions on where people could campaign or gather petition signatures, deciding the language was too strong.

Meanwhile, in rural Starks, known for its annual hemp festival, voters defeated proposed moratoriums on marijuana dispensaries and adult entertainment.

Nip, tuck and cut

Voters in many of the towns that held March town meetings were presented with budgets that were lower than current-year levels. In Cushing, spending for municipal services was down 8 percent, while St. George officials proposed a budget 15.7 percent lower than existing spending levels.

St. Albans voters passed a budget 18 percent lower than the current fiscal year spending plan.

Although municipal budgets have been being seriously trimmed over many years, the continued poor economy and corresponding loss of revenue has forced more draconian measures than in the past.

After years of eliminating jobs through attrition, Maine municipalities have started laying people off to balance their books. In the state’s smallest towns, there are few employees to let go.

In some places, officials predicted the worst is not yet over.

In the town of Waldo, voters agreed to cut all but $350 for social-service contributions from the $5,133 approved last year and the total requested this year of $7,727.

Advocates for the elderly made special pleas, reminding Waldo voters that another cold winter is never far away and predicting that the state’s economy would still be weak next year.

In the town of Etna, the Newport Food Bank told voters it would no longer be able to provide food for Etna families because the town had eliminated its grant of $700.

The news for Etna didn’t get any better after voters decided to eliminate the town manager’s job without fully realizing how the decision would impact selectmen and staff. Rounding off a tough day was the resignation of all three members of the town planning board.

In other financial action, Belgrade voters didn’t like either of two proposals for a new town office – one version for $3.5 million and the other for $1 million.

Some communities endorsed major projects, however, mostly through long-term borrowing. Other towns dipped deeply into surpluses to balance their budgets and keep property taxes stable.

For example, Palmyra voters agreed to take $350,000 from surplus for the new year, or $50,000 more than recommended by selectmen. Benton voters also upped their withdrawal from surplus by $50,000 for a total of $200,000.

In better times, most municipalities tried to spend surplus funds only on one-time capital projects or purchases to avoid building in a natural budget gap when the surplus account was low or empty.

Some communities spent more freely, however. The small town of Andover near Rumford will borrow $500,000 to repair 11 miles of road; Castine, home to Maine Maritime Academy, will spend $2.5 million as the first step in a $14 million infrastructure upgrade in the village; Bristol voters approved borrowing $548,000 over 30 years for a new fire station; and, Abbott will spend $95,000 for an addition to its municipal building.

Turnout

Here are some samples of voter turnout from around the state.

In Farmingdale, 60 people out of about 2,850 attended their town meeting; 63 voters in the town of
Montville showed up, with a population of 1,000; Liberty, with a population of 990, attracted 60; and 103 Farmington residents from a population of 7,500 attended.

About 55 Morrill residents from a total of 890 attended the morning part of the meeting; half remained after a potluck lunch.

 

Liz Chapman Mockler is a freelance writer and media advisor from Augusta,   lizmockler@hotmail.com