For an institution often said to be in decline, town meeting can still produce some of the liveliest debate at any level of government. The 2006 town meeting season was no exception, as communities around the state enacted ordinances limiting “big box” stores, tried to fend off a new incinerator, authorized new municipal buildings and equipment and, of course, spent many hours considering the appropriate level for the budget. While town meetings are no longer held exclusively on the traditional early March date, most of them for municipalities operating on a calendar fiscal year are completed by the end of March, and it is those meetings that are included in the following statewide roundup.
One issue for town meeting consideration this year was compliance with LD 1, the property tax reform and spending limitation measure passed in 2005. Calendar year towns – most of them hold a March town meeting – were experiencing the municipal spending limitation system of LD 1 for the first time in 2006. July-June fiscal year communities enacted budgets in 2005 under the LD 1 limits.
LD 1 requires that the legislative body in each municipality – in this case the town meeting – take a separate override vote if the municipal part of the property tax commitment rises beyond a designated growth factor. The growth factor is a two-part formula that adds growth in real total personal income (TPI) to “new” property value.
In some towns, override votes were treated almost as an afterthought, while in others they aroused passionate debate and resulted in eventual budget reductions to stay within the growth limit. Towns that had previously used large amounts of surplus to keep the tax rate down sometimes found themselves in a ticklish situation, since 2005 budgets were used as a baseline for the amount that property taxes could grow under the limit in 2006.
COMPLYING WITH LD 1
In Windsor, which adopts its municipal budget by ballot, the LD 1 override question produced an impasse. The property tax commitment limit was $107,000, but the anticipated commitment was $90,000 higher. Much of the increase was attributed to the price of a revaluation, costing $66,800. Voters approved all of the budget articles on the ballot, including the revaluation, but then defeated the override article. Selectmen are now planning a special town meeting to reconsider the override question, but are still debating whether to have a vote to “increase” or “exceed” the limit. If a town meeting increases the limit, it establishes a new limit as the baseline for the following year. A vote to exceed the limit does not establish a new property tax levy limit for the next year; it allows the town to override just for the current year.
Neighboring Whitefield considered its budget by ballot, rather than on the town meeting floor, for the first time this year, but no LD 1 override was needed because the selectmen’s budget lowered the property tax commitment from the previous year.
In Sweden, voters got right to work cutting the budget to fit within the growth limit, which allowed for $181,000 in municipal commitment. Selectmen had budgeted $42,000 over the limit, but voters slashed $22,000 from road maintenance and $18,000 from snow plowing. They also postponed increasing town officials’ salaries to a special town meeting. Selectmen said that much of the need for increased spending came from a new town office, still incomplete after six years, which cost $200,000. Some citizens derided it as a “Taj Mahal.”
Despite a major increase in municipal commitment, Searsmont voters had little hesitation in committing $446,732 in property taxes, far above the town's levy limit. First Selectman Bruce Brierly said that the budget itself was up 5.4 percent, and the property tax increase resulted from the lack of available surplus.
In Canaan, voters agreed to an LD 1 override article, 51-13, but then started making significant reductions anyway. They turned down $113,500 in road improvements that left the town well under its growth cap of 6.6 percent.
Belgradevoters were more laid-back about spending. They also voted overwhelmingly to override, 77-15, and did not make significant reductions in a budget that increased 5.5 percent, and that exceeded its permitted $307,000 commitment by $185,000. Road improvements and a landfill closing were the main cost-drivers.
Phillips voters confirmed the observation that the longest debates are often about the smallest financial items. The selectmen’s budget exceeded the $146,860 commitment cap by just $840, yet the discussion went on at length before being concluded with a written ballot, in which three-quarters of the voters approved the override.
One town that does use a July-June fiscal year, despite a March meeting, approved an override this time after rejecting one last year. Lamoine was in the unusual situation of having no municipal commitment at all, since municipal expenses were covered by excise taxes and other revenue. The budget was nevertheless held to the previous year’s level in 2005; this time, voters allowed $39,000 to be raised for municipal expenses.
THE BUDGET BATTLES
Many towns had fiery debates over spending even where an LD 1 override was not the issue at stake.
In Greene, voters rejected the recommendation of the budget committee and decided to continue paying a 5 percent discount for early payment of property taxes at an estimated cost of $142,000. Selectman Ronald Grant said, “The board [of selectmen] understands where the people are coming from.” But in St. Agatha, town officials agreed to end their early payment discount, saving $10,000.
Stoningtonvoters decided their fire department needed more support, increased the reserve account from $10,000 to $40,000 and approved an additional $6,000 for fire truck repairs.
South Thomastonsaw its budget decrease five percent, largely because voters had approved spending $93,000 for a revaluation the previous year. Its neighbor, Thomaston, saw a five percent budget increase for essentially the same reason – $70,000 earmarked for updating valuations.
Steuben voters were in a frugal mood. The town recently engaged in a lengthy debate about whether to close its elementary school and join with neighboring Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor – first voting in favor of consolidation, and then rejecting the idea. Town meeting voters decided to eliminate $15,000 for a used one-ton truck, to cut $41,000 from road improvements, and to allocate no money for additional ditching and paving work.
Improvements to town buildings, cemeteries and parks were featured at many town meetings, with plenty of scrutiny of budget figures and plans.
West Gardiner took the plunge and voted to build a combined new town office and fire station after last’s year plan to replace just the fire station failed because the intended building site, abutting a CMP power line, wasn’t large enough. The new, $700,000 complex will replace both existing buildings; the fire station will be torn down and the town office, a modular structure, sold. The municipal building will be financed with a 30-year note from the Maine Municipal Bond Bank. “It scares me,” commented Selectman Merton Hickey. “It’s a lot of money and a long time.”
Another big-ticket purchase was approved in Unity, where voters agreed to spend $874,000 for a new fire station, even though it meant a short-term 5.5 percent increase in taxes. Selectman Tess Woods said voters were “well informed” about the project, while First Selectman Ron Rudolph observed that “The fireman need the new firehouse, because they’re having trouble finding new volunteers, I think because it’s so drab.”
Peruvoters agreed to spend another $100,000 to complete a salt-and-sand shed for which $200,000 had been allocated the previous year; site work cost more than expected.
Hebronapproved spending $150,000 on a new fire truck to replace a 30-year-old pumper that is defunct. Mount Vernonwill need another crack at allocating $200,000 for a fire truck, possibly in June, after voters rejected a complex article selectmen conceded was confusing. In Andover, voters approved $100,000 for a new plow truck, a decision perhaps made easier by a 12 percent budget decrease. Baldwinhad the financing figured out well before town meeting, approving the purchase of a $54,000 plow truck and a $220,000 fire truck, almost all from surplus funds. Selectman Allan Dolloff said the town hasn’t borrowed for appropriations in 40 years, and commented, “We are not only financially conservative but we are cheap.”
Athensvoters turned down a request to spend $50,000 refurbishing the local Grange hall, which would have moved the old building onto a slab and improved the utilities. They heeded the view of new First Selectman Robert Turnbull, who said, “On this issue, we haven’t even defined the problem. By a narrow margin, Friendship voters declined to spend $30,000 to complete an expansion of the Harbor Cemetery. Residents questioned the need for additional money beyond a 2003 allocation, which selectmen said was insufficient because of ledge problems, when other town cemeteries have available plots. The vote was 20-17.
In Liberty, though, voters were willing to spend $7,500 to repair a privately-owned dam after hearing that maintaining the level of Lake St. George depended on it. They appear to be won over by tales of the extraordinary lengths town workers went to after several gates broke. Said Sarason Lieber, who supervises water levels, “Joe Higgins runs this excavator and I would let him fix my molars.”
Over the objections of selectmen, Brooks voters committed $100,000 to renovate the former Majorie Fogg House for town office space. The house is adjacent to the new fire station, with the land and existing building acquired in 2004.
Allagash residents weren’t willing to commit a major sum to the municipal building, which was once the town’s K-12 school, now closed. They did support applying to the state for a $150,000 Community Development Block Grant, however.
The expense of a petitioned article to divert groundwater away from the elementary school may have deterred voters in Bristol, who rejected the request to spend $125,000 for that purpose.
ROADS AND MORE ROADS . . .
Roads were a major subject of conversation at 19 th century town meetings in Maine, and they still are. Judging from news coverage, it may still be the top issue, in fact.
Lovell voters were content to support a 40 percent budget increase, with much of the jump attributable to a $150,000 appropriation to rebuild a half-mile of the Sabattus Road, and $45,000 for a new plow truck. Waterfordwas also willing to dig deep for roads, with a $100,00 surplus transfer on top of a $110,000 road account. Selectman William “Whizzer” Wheeler said, “This is the first time the town has agreed to spend funds on something that was not broken … we are saying, before it breaks, let’s worry about it.”
A protracted debate over a road in Beals that some townspeople feel primarily benefits seasonal residents produced a split decision: the town allocated $20,000 rather than the $43,700 requested for a half-mile stretch of Black Duck Cove Road, after a motion for the full amount failed by a vote of 23-22. Some voters suggested the residents who live on the road pay for the rest of the project themselves.
Pownal simply said no to a proposed reconstruction of Royal Road of just over a mile, at an estimated cost of $215,000, despite budget committee member Tom Godfrey’s characterization of it as “pretty lumpy,” He added, “A lot of our roads need to be reconstructed from the base up.” The issue in Bowdoin was a little different, where an article to accept Spring Drive as a town road was rejected, 93-36. Town Clerk Melanie Page said, “The town felt at this point they did not want to take on any more roads.”
In Coplin Plantation, the big issue was whether selectmen should seek separate bids for summer and winter road maintenance, which have traditionally been awarded to one contractor. A group of Kennebago Road residents felt they’d get better service if the contracts were separated, but voters rejected the article.
Woodstock voters got hung up over how to handle a backhoe lease. After leasing the machinery for $7,000 a year, selectmen proposed leasing a new backhoe for $14,000. Voters balked, and now will face a special town meeting to confirm their apparent intent to purchase the six-year-old backhoe for $30,000. Selectmen will nonetheless include a second article to renew the lease agreement for a new backhoe. “It’s so practical and cost-effective that we hate to change,” said Town Manager Vern Maxfield.
ONE OF A KIND
Town meeting season would not be complete without those unique proposals that rise to public attention in one and only one municipality.
They can be serious: Athens voted 119-66 to impose a 180-day moratorium on a controversial proposal by GenPower LLC to build a biomass incinerator that would be fueled in large part by construction debris from around New England (the Legislature is considering rules to limit such fuel use to 50 percent of capacity.) Opponents said the small town lacked the means to properly review such a proposal, with one saying, “The process was completely out of our control.” The 2-1 margin against GenPower held true for candidates, too. An incumbent selectman who favored the incinerator was voted out, 194-112, while one who opposed it kept his seat, 200-111.
Other matters were slightly less serious. West Paris may now be the first town in Maine to ban “puppy mills,” unregulated breeding facilities for cats and dogs that have been denounced by humane societies. Brooklin, meanwhile, may still be unique when it retained its “GE Free” zone, turning back an attempt to “recall” an ordinance passed last year. The measure imposes a “voluntary ban” on any genetically engineered organisms – agricultural or marine – in town. Organic farm owner Tim Seabrook said the ordinance protects his business. Without it, “We will not be able to serve our customers and we will not be able to make a living.” Recall proponent Al Hutchins, who petitioned for the vote, said he was “ashamed of my town” because residents had denied a biotechnology industry spokesman a chance to speak at last year’s meeting.
Avon will look into a local eminent domain ordinance after hearing concerns about last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the taking of land for a private developer in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Quipped Moderator Richard Caton, “Isn’t it awful that a little town like Avon has to straighten out the Supreme Court?”
Mercer ended its long boycott of the E-911 system, rescinding a five-year-old policy of not cooperating with state efforts to apply a street address to every residence in Maine. Resident Duncan Steele, who is a Somerset County dispatcher, told the meeting, “It’s very frustrating if we get a call and we don’t know where your house is. If you’re lying on the floor with a heart attack, seconds count.” He said privacy protections in state law are adequate to guard against misuse of 911 information.
In Washington, the traditional Red Cross donation of $1,325 survived a challenge from voters who were incensed about recent scandals at the American Red Cross office, which granted its former CEO a $780,000 severance package. A local Red Cross representative convinced voters that the Pine Tree Chapter is administered separately, and has no financial ties to the Washington – D.C. – office.
Harpswell, which saw a bitter referendum fight two years ago over a private developer’s plan to convert a former Navy fuel depot into a terminal for liquefied natural gas shipments, turned down another plan, this one from selectmen. They had proposed converting a garage on the property into a satellite library, and building a boat launch and recreation area.
Votes in three coastal towns showed increased resistance to the big-box stores that have been springing up across Maine. Just last June, Augusta voters asked in a referendum to decide about zoning changes that would allow a second shopping mall along I-95, reportedly featuring Target and Lowe’s, approved the development by a 2-1 margin.
This March, though, Nobleboro, Damariscotta and Newcastle all enacted moratoriums or size-restrictive ordinances that would make big-box construction unlikely. Damariscotta embraced the most restrictive proposal by a 2-1 margin, barring retail stores larger than 35,000 square feet. Organizer Eleanor Kinney called it a “decisive victory,” in the face of Wal-Mart’s intention to locate a 186,000 square foot Supercenter along Route 1 in the area. Newcastle also enacted a 35,000 square foot restriction by a slightly smaller margin, while Nobleboro, by a show of hands, voted for a six-month moratorium on large commercial development. The intent was to allow completion of a comprehensive plan in time for the November election, which could involve permanent restrictions on retail store size. The decisions by the three towns would appear to leave Thomaston as the main location northeast of Brunswick and southwest of Rockland remaining open to big-box development.
Thomaston, however, is also considering limits on store sizes, and will vote on May 16 on two questions: one seeks to restrict stores to 150,000 sq. ft.; the other would set the limit at 70,000 sq. ft.
TERMS OF OFFICE
Since town meetings are legislative bodies, one of the most frequent opportunities is setting the terms of office – and the pay – of elected officials.
Bingham ended its tradition of elected tax collectors, even while electing incumbent Viola Tibbetts one more time; after 20 years as collector, Tibbetts said she will retire next year. Knox decided to change methods and elect its officers by secret ballot before the business session, rather than from the floor, and also staggered the terms of selectmen. Moscow made a similar change to staggered terms.
Monmouth, after months of controversy, voted 614-449 to retain its police department, apparently ending attempts by selectmen to encourage a contract with Kennebec County for law enforcement services. Westfield, a town where selectmen faced criticism after shutting down its town office and laying off Town Clerk Lisa Lovely, decided to retain its appointed clerk by a 79-44 margin. Voters did unseat two incumbent selectmen, however. With the retirement of Town Clerk Caroline Mitchell after 36 years on the job, Burnham voters considered making the position appointive rather than elective. They stayed with the elected position, though, and chose Carolyn Hamel as the new clerk.
Harpswell selectmen proposed making the switch from election to appointment for road commissioner, tax collector, town clerk and treasurer, saying in an op-ed that, “almost all of the municipalities larger than Harpswell have made these positions appointive.” Voters turned them down, though, and also defeated one incumbent selectman. In the much smaller town of Freedom, however, voters did decide to allow the selectmen to appoint the town clerk and tax collector, by a vote of 37-32. And in what was an unusual system to begin with, Addisonvoters agreed that the administrative assistant to the selectmen, which had been an elected position, should become appointive starting next year, by a whisker-thin margin, 48-46.
A couple of towns entertained regional options for municipal services. Friendship voters, by 143-14, authorized selectmen to negotiate with Waldoboro concerning ambulance service. And Hiram voters gave a provisional go-ahead for a shared recreational director with Baldwin, Cornish, Parsonsfield and Porter, contingent on three of the other four towns agreeing to fund the position.
In Caratunk, selectmen proposed reducing the first selectmen’s pay from $10,000 to $9,000, while boosting the second selectmen’s pay by the same amount, from $1,500 to $2,500. Thorndike voters rejected former selectman Jerry Dubay’s proposal to pay each of the three selectmen $3,000, preferring instead to provide a higher salary to the first selectman. And in Frenchville, voters, by a 20-18 tally, sliced $2,000 from the pay of the three selectmen, whose salary account had totaled $7,200.
OTHER LAND USE ISSUES
Aside from big-box stores, zoning and land use questions were relatively infrequent at this year’s meetings. Searsport rejected a proposed zoning ordinance, despite earlier support for a comprehensive plan, enacted three years ago, that called for such controls. The relatively close vote prompted one supporter to vow, “Well, there’s always next year.”
Newry turned down an ambitious fire protection ordinance that would have required new subdivisions to provide either fire ponds or residential sprinkler systems, and to require sprinklers in all multi-family housing. Proposed shoreland zoning changes that would have reduced buffer zones from 250 feet to 75 feet were also rejected.
In Waterford, however, voters approved what were termed “sweeping changes” to its land use ordinance. Buckfield considered, but rejected, a moratorium on residential subdivisions by a vote of 27-25. And in Whitneyville, residents voted 26-21 to continue the process of deorganizing the town. State law requires legislative approval and, ultimately, two-thirds support by the town.
With the continued rise in property values across most of the state, revaluation proposals were considered at many meetings. Gilead decided to undertake its first complete revaluation since 1980, and the first major update since selectmen made adjustments in 1992. Harrington voters approved $35,000 to undertake updated assessments, but rejected the idea of contracting with a private firm. Chinahad a lengthy debate about allocating $190,000 from surplus for its first revaluation in a decade, and voters finally approved the measure, 98-71. Albiondecided against doing a relatively quick update of assessments, and instead opened a reserve account, with $20,000, that will fund a more extensive revaluation later.
TAKING OUT THE GARBAGE
Considering the donnybrooks some towns have faced about paying for trash disposal, it was also a quiet year for transfer station politics. Jackson voters overwhelmingly rejected a $1 per bag fee at the town transfer station, despite a presentation by the Unity Area Regional Recycling Center. Solon had a sizable turnout – 147 voters – many of whom came to turn thumbs down on a pay-per-bag system. Selectmen spoke about the town’s $70,000 disposal costs, which they consider excessive. And in Industry, voters opted for a fully private trash-hauling system, with no more financial support from the town.
Though schools are usually the subject of separate meetings, a few towns also made decisions about education at town meeting. Harmony decided to tuition its students to SAD 46 in Dexter rather than to Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft, even though some residents preferred agreements with both. The town pays only tuition; parents are responsible for transportation. In Minot, voters decided to spent $92,000 to expand the Minot Consolidated School and establish an all-day kindergarten program. The town had previously turned down more ambitious expansion plans.
DEMOCRACY IN ACTION
The decisions of town meeting are often renowned for their practical good sense. Such seemed to be the case in Stow, where voters rejected spending $100 each for Maine Public Broadcasting and the Seniors Plus program. The town clerk said that no seniors from town participate in Seniors Plus, and most residents can’t get public television because mountains block the signal. One town clerk was sure of a short town meeting, despite 43 articles on the ballot. Arlene Davis of New Vineyard said the voters always move things along: “We never have much controversy.”
In Cranberry Isles, town meeting tradition dictates an old-style observance, complete with an outdoor picnic (held this year in T-shirts) and inclusion of the islanders’ kids as observers. Things picked up with a close election between two relative newcomers, Hal Newell, a seasonal visitor since the 1940s, and the much younger Aaron Gray, with both outpolling incumbent selectman Edgar Blank. It took three ballots for Gray to finally prevail, prompting one voter to quip, “It’s like Groundhog Day.”
Samantha Krasnow, 11, said, “It was kind of boring, but also interesting. I thought it would be cool if I could vote.”