Mainers Flex Town Meeting Muscle

(from Maine Townsman, April 2007)
By Liz Chapman, Freelance Writer

From testy to tame, local voters took up an array of issues at this year’s spring town meetings. Many of the town meeting attendees expressed worry about the state of state affairs, including cuts in basic highway investments and a sweeping school restructuring proposal with an unknown impact to local schools and school budgets.

Residents in many communities weighed their desire to keep property taxes in check with an obvious need to do something about long-neglected roadways. In many town meeting debates, the roads won as residents raised their voices in favor of increased spending for road repair and maintenance.

At a controversial meeting in Steuben, a sheriff’s deputy stood watch. Several residents have been upset for over a year following a townwide revaluation. In other towns, unhappy voters were ousting incumbents and changing the form of government.

A number of municipalities reported strong voter turnout, but that was most often because local voters faced a major issue or were upset over the way their community was being run. A few other towns were more like Pittston, where just 55 voters in a town of 2,600 attended town meeting and the municipal ballot featured an entire slate of unopposed candidates for selectmen, school board, budget committee, planning board and personnel committee.

And then there was the town of Moscow, where selectmen J. Donald Beane, Elvin Hawes and Maynard Lagasse were returned to office for the 28 th straight year. The Somerset County town of 562 also voted to pay $12,000 for school breakfast and lunch for children who don’t qualify for reduced prices and $20,000 for college scholarships.

Several town meetings voted to override the state-imposed LD 1 property tax levy limit, although it appeared the majority of municipalities stayed within their budget limit.

In some towns because of reduced state revenue sharing funds, voters had to override the LD 1 limit even though the town’s spending was being kept in check.

New Spending

North Haven voters agreed to shoulder almost $300,000 in new annual debt to establish a town-run medical clinic. The new service, along with the first payment of $200,000 on a $1 million road bond, drove up the municipal budget by 25 percent.

Carrabassett Valley residents approved a $1.2 million bond request for extensive renovations to the town-owned Sugarloaf Outdoor Center, despite a string of rainy and warm winters that have stymied business for Sugarloaf/USA and other resorts. Under the deal, Sugarloaf will repay the loan and continue maintaining the center.

Pownal voters okayed two large bonds, one for $1.8 million to repair and rebuild local roads and another for $300,000 to buy a new fire truck. In Palmyra, residents approved spending $800,000 over the next five years to rebuild the town’s roughly 14 miles of dirt roads, with about $225,000 of the cost to be taken from surplus.

Strong voters approved spending $111,000 rather than the more conservative $93,000 recommended by selectmen to replace lost state revenue sharing. In South Bristol, voters agreed to spend $609,000 more than the state-recommended Essential Programs and Services (EPS) school budget amount. The vote, as required under LD 1, was taken by ‘written ballot’, with just one of 100 voters opposed.

In tiny Industry, residents voted to increase the budget by $100,000 to start a five-year road repair plan and even tinier Vienna, with 600 residents, overrode the LD 1 limit in order to pay for higher salt, sand and road costs.

Tight Budgets

Not all towns were in the mood to endorse new ideas, particularly those that came with fiscal notes. For example, in Palermo, voters defeated a motion to override the LD 1 limit by about $38,000, ultimately settling on a budget that would increase the limit by $26,000. And, they rejected a request to put aside $1,000 to start a capital improvement program.

Stonington voters took away from selectmen what they only gave them a year ago: health insurance coverage. Saying the cost was far higher than anticipated, the 60-40 cost sharing program for the five selectmen was ditched, saving the town $20,000 and bringing the budget in under the LD 1 limit by $100,000.

In St. Albans, a testy town meeting crowd voted to eliminate a $25,000 reserve fund for future dam repair.

Searsport voters also took $200,000 from surplus to reduce taxes, while West Paris voted to use surplus to stabilize the property tax rate.

Changes in Government

Steuben voters, agitated since last year’s townwide revaluation, voted 239-156 to return to the traditional selectmen-town meeting form of government, eliminating the town manager plan and cutting the board from five to three members, effective next year. Voters also turned out two incumbent selectmen. Town Manager Tom Richmond, who said he respected the vote, resigned immediately although his contract was good through June. Richmond is looking for a new manager’s job and does not want the town to buy out his contract.

A sheriff’s deputy stood watch over the town meeting, testament to the strife and bad feelings that have lingered in the Washington County town of 1,140 for more than a year.

Other attempts at major changes in local government failed in Alfred and Bowdoin, where voters rejected proposals to increase the size of the board of selectmen from three to five members. In Alfred, selectmen were surprised by the close 81-75 vote and conceded they needed to listen more to the voters who thought more selectmen would bring more objectivity and communication between townspeople and the board.

Opponents of the change in Alfred noted that in 13 of the last 22 local elections since 1986, candidates ran unopposed for selectmen, including this year.

Bowdoin voters, meanwhile, agreed by consensus that the town needed to hire at least a part-time administrator, rather than increasing the number of selectmen by two.

Kingfield residents voted to hire the town’s first administrator as the western Maine town prepares for a new $60 million water bottling plant to be built this year by Poland Spring.

The towns of Benton and Industry continued a growing trend in Maine local government when they voted to appoint their town clerks rather than elect them, which is seen in some communities as a popularity contest rather than an effort to hire someone with experience in the challenging field. Not so in Swanville, where a tiny turnout of voters decided 18-12 to keep electing the clerk rather than giving appointment authority to selectmen.

Ordinance Decisions

A proposal to create a town ethics committee was tabled by Strong voters after Town Clerk Eunice Shurtleff, who lost her bid for re-election, requested the action.

In a reminder that every vote counts, Searsport residents adopted the town’s first zoning ordinance by a single vote, 145-144, and rejected dumping the comprehensive plan by a vote of 150-121 during a grueling six-hour meeting.

Farmington residents defeated a measure to require developers to cluster subdivisions so that 45 percent of the land is left as green space. Supporters argued the new ordinance would stop sprawl, while opponents feared the new rule would discourage home development in the college town.

Athens will begin regulating the burning of commercial and demolition debris by businesses after passing a new ordinance, 160-104. Brownville voters defeated a proposed ordinance regulating mass gatherings of 500 or more people, while Baldwin became the latest Maine town to pass restrictions on where convicted sex offenders can live.


St. Agatha voters made local history when they endorsed a proposed local property tax refund program that will provide annual rebates to elderly residents of up to $300. Only homesteaders age 65 and older who qualify for the state’s circuit breaker program will qualify for the local refund. Residents also must have lived in the Aroostook County town for at least the past 10 years.

Rome town meeting voters decided to join SAD 47 and will now wait to see whether Oakland, Sidney and Belgrade residents will allow it. Harpswell, on the other hand, gave up its year-long effort to secede from SAD 75 (Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham), making official what appeared inevitable when the town’s withdrawal committee resigned en masse last fall. The vote to end the effort was 466-211.

Mount Desert voters created a stir statewide when they voted overwhelmingly to remove fluoride from town water supply at the recommendation of water district manager Paul Slack, who said fluoride can actually harm the teeth when swallowed. The vote was 229-42.

Mercer voters were in a “what part of no....” mood, turning out an incumbent, refusing to ban ATV riders from town roads, voting to stop the comprehensive plan committee from continuing its work, and rejecting a raise for selectmen and their request to exceed the LD 1 property tax levy limit. Residents were upset to learn the town had not had a full audit in at least five years and voted to spend what was necessary to get the work done.

Sedgwick residents, concerned that the towns of Blue Hill and Surry have “carte blanche” control over the regional solid waste landfill, voted to sign just a one-year agreement to continue using the towns’ landfill. Some residents said they were “appalled” by the language of a proposed new contract. Voters gave selectmen a year to renegotiate a new agreement.

Limington officials mailed town meeting warrants and annual reports to all 3,400 registered voters but still only 50 turned up for the town meeting, though 564 weathered a snowstorm to vote for municipal candidates a day earlier.