Local Referenda Results: Voters fiscally-conservative on capital projects

(from Maine Townsman, November 2006)
By Liz Chapman, MMA

When Maine voters went to the polls this month, they decided a lot more than federal, state and county election races and the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). In scores of cities and towns on November 7, voters took up important local issues that ranged from hefty school construction bond requests to waterfront development to limiting so-called Big Box stores. Sex offenders, ethics rules, charter changes and tax breaks also made the long list of 2006 local government referenda.

Capital projects

Voters across Maine rejected a number of spending proposals, validating the principle of local control which became central to the debate and defeat of the proposed Taxpayer Bill of Rights.

The local financial questions on the November 7 ballot might have been affected by TABOR in two key ways, however: voters might have been worried about the projects on the ballot in the event that TABOR would pass. Also, perhaps more fiscally conservative voters, who otherwise would have stayed home on Election Day, tipped the balance on some of the local questions.

Following are some of the projects that local voters decided to approve or nix at the ballot box.

Lisbon voters rejected by 718 votes the town’s request to borrow money to build a new public works garage. The town estimated the cost of the new 13,000 square foot garage at $1.75 million.

In Saco, voters rejected two financial requests and approved one. Voters said “no” to a request for a $1 million bond for a trail along the Saco River. They also rejected a request for a $5.5 million bond to enlarge the public works building. But by a comfortable margin, Saco voters endorsed a $4.4 million bond to improve sidewalks, streets and public buildings.

In South Portland, voters denied a request to borrow $500,000 to finance various paving projects.

Lincolnville won’t be getting a new town office complex, at least not for now. Voters handily rejected the project, which called for borrowing $2 million toward a $2.3 million expansion of the town office.

Under the plan, the town would have built fire and police stations onto the town office building for a total of 11,850 square feet. The fire station would have measured 4,400 square feet, while the police department would have been 1,700 square feet.

Falmouth voters approved borrowing $3.9 million for a new police station and expansion and renovation of the Central Fire Station. The new 9,920 square foot police station will cost an estimated $2.2 million, and another $900,000 to add a wing onto the fire station. The request also included $800,000 for associated costs such as equipment, furniture and permitting.

Bath voters decided to borrow $2 million for road repairs, mostly in the area south of Route 1. The bond will be paid for over 15 to 20 years, which City Manager Bill Giroux said represents the life span of the repairs and allows the city to maintain a steady effort to keep up with major road projects.

Voters in Cumberland and North Yarmouth agreed to borrow $14 million to renovate Greely High School. Part of the plan is to build a two-story addition to the school and a 30,000 square foot connector building.

Scarborough school officials were handed a defeat at the polls when voters refused to authorize borrowing $55 million to build a new intermediate school and to renovate the middle school. Residents did not dispute the need for the projects, but balked at the price tag. The town has already paid $27 million for the recently finished high school project.

Other financial matters

Gorham voters by the slimmest of margins defeated a request to increase the amount of money the council could borrow without voter approval. The current limit is $250,000, which was set in 1997.

The council had asked for permission to spend up to $500,000 on road projects without voter approval and up to $350,000 for all other projects. The council asked for the authority to keep pace with inflation over the past decade. The board asked for a half-million dollar threshold for roads because inflation has been significantly higher for that work.

In a highly anticipated advisory vote in Cape Elizabeth, residents rejected a proposal to charge vehicles $5 a day as an entrance fee into beloved Fort Williams, home to one of the most famous lighthouses in the world.

The incoming town council will consider the lopsided vote in making a decision on whether to impose a parking fee system at the park from April 1 through October 3. Fee supporters argued it is unfair for property taxpayers to continue paying an average of $50 annually per household to maintain the park, but detractors far outnumbered supporters. The council sought a non-binding referendum after it defeated a proposed fee system in August.

The Houlton Town Council won’t be getting a raise any time soon. Voters handily defeated a request to double councilors’ pay from $500 to $1,000 annually, and from $600 to $1,200 annually for the chairman of the board. Councilors earn about $20 for each meeting they attend throughout the year, based on their current stipends and workload.

In Harpswell, voters agreed to support a salary survey for town staff and elected officials. They also accepted a $10,000 grant from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to help plan for future uses of Mitchell Field.

Millinocket voters rejected a non-binding referendum to increase funding for the Millinocket Area Growth and Investment Council, or MAGIC, which serves Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway.

The funding request would have provided $30,000 for the agency on top of the $30,000 already pledged by the town council, which also has agreed to abide by the election results on the non-binding referendum.

Opponents of the funding request have argued that MAGIC has failed the town by creating few jobs and economic growth while creating more opportunities in East Millinocket and Medway.

Detractors also alleged that the agency, formed after huge layoffs at the paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket in 1999, has worked with environmental preservation groups to the detriment of the town’s way of life.

Wiscasset residents rejected a budget request of nearly $400,000 to restore the police department to 24-hour coverage with five full-time officers. The vote was the second time voters have said “no” to the request – the June town meeting also rejected it.

Kennebunk voters liked the idea of establishing impact fees within a three-mile radius of the town’s new fire station. The fee revenue – 42 cents per square foot of usable space – will help offset the town’s annual debt payments on the $1.6 million firehouse.

The new facility, once completed next June, will include 40 percent of access capacity to account for future growth in West Kennebunk. The fee would only be imposed until the town raises about $950,00, or 40 percent of the cost of the new facility.

Precedent Setting in Maine

Two Maine towns took preemptive action to try to keep convicted sex offenders away from schools and day care centers in an issue that is becoming so controversial in Maine that the Legislature is expected to take it up in the upcoming session.

In neighboring Waterboro and Lyman, in York County, voters passed ordinances prohibiting child sex offenders from living closer than 2,500 feet from a school or 1,000 feet from a day care center.

The new ordinances are the first in Maine.

The votes were stunningly lopsided, with Waterboro residents voting 2,206 to 131 to endorse the new ordinance and Lyman residents voting 1,568 to 250 in favor of the restraints.

The votes reflect the concern and fear that parents and others have expressed when they learn a convicted sex offender has moved into their neighborhood.

Under current Maine law, only in the cases in which offenders’ sentences include probation can there be special restrictions placed on where they live. Offenders who are not on probation are not restricted in where they can live, including near schools and day care centers.

A Waterboro legislator plans to submit a bill in the new legislative session that would prohibit sex offenders from living within 500 feet of schools.

The local referenda followed an emotional public outcry earlier this year when a convicted child sex offender moved into a house located 840 feet from Massabesic Junior High School.

The Maine Civil Liberties Union has already cautioned the two towns that their new ordinances could raise constitutional questions, or inspire court challenges, as has been done in other states with similar laws.

Miscellaneous decisions

Following is a smattering of other local questions decided this month around Maine.

In Bath, residents endorsed a high-rise condominium project on the waterfront, agreeing to amend the zoning laws to allow taller buildings as part of the so-called BathPort project.

In exchange, the developers have agreed to build and landscape a river front walkway, pay to bury the power lines along Commercial Street, renovate public restrooms in the area and build a 30-by-40-foot public gallery.

The developers hope to start building by next spring and plan to construct 24 luxury condominiums, as well as space for retail operations and a parking garage.

The project is expected to generate $200,000 a year in property tax revenue.

Nobleboro voters endorsed two referenda, one that limits the size for retail and service floor space to 45,000 square feet. Townspeople also approved a referendum asking that the town create performance standards for large-scale development, dealing with issues such as lighting, architectural design and buffers.

A handful of towns continue to struggle with the Big Box issue which is often a philosophical argument between the need for jobs and economic growth and preserving the character and look of a community.

In a similar theme to Nobleboro only with a different outcome, the voters of Waldoboro rejected a proposed 11-page ordinance that would have established standards to control the size and look of retail businesses with more than 50,000 square feet of space.

Waldoboro voters also approved a secret ballot referendum system for budget approval, rather than the open town meeting, an ongoing trend throughout Maine as towns try to increase the number of voters who make fiscal decisions on local spending.

Gray residents also moved to a secret ballot system that would maintain the annual town meeting in May, when voters could discuss the budget and offer amendments. But the actual vote on the annual spending package would be done by ballot at the municipal elections in June.

Westport Island residents voted overwhelmingly to create a budget committee and to have members elected at large rather than appointed by selectmen.

Voters in Wayne made the same decision, voting to change currently elected positions such as town clerk and treasurer to appointed positions. They also rejected a citizen’s petition by the former fire chief that would have made the fire chief an elected official.

Voters in tiny Drew Plantation in Penobscot County failed to reach the two-thirds majority required by state law to deorganize. The question did win a majority vote of 17-10.

Lyman voters approved a pay-per-bag solid waste disposal system. Supporters said the new program, which will impose a $1.75 fee for each 30-gallon bag of waste, will take some pressure off the property tax, especially for elderly residents who tend to have less trash than other residents.

The new fees also will force tourists and summer residents to pay for disposal of the trash they generate and leave behind.

Voters in Sidney decidedbusiness owners will be able to sell liquor Monday through Saturday, but rejected Sunday liquor sales. Town officials recently realized the town ordinance had not been changed since Prohibition.

In a town often divided over alleged conflicts of interests, the voters of Bar Harborpassed an ethics ordinance that will apply to all elected and appointed town officials.

The debate over imposing ethics rules goes back several years, when some residents became increasingly upset and suspect of the actions and decisions of the town’s planning board in particular.

Since so many of Bar Harbor’s elected and appointed officials are business owners with ties to some of the largest housing and commercial developers in Maine’s No. 1 tourism destination, the public insisted on establishing firm rules to ensure each applicant is treated fairly.

While elected and appointed decision-makers denied their decisions are based on any friendship or other ties to developers and business owners, they also conceded that the appearance of a conflict of interest had become a major controversy in the town.