By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer
The City of Saco is already making plans to send its trash elsewhere, even though voters in the twin cities of Biddeford and Saco rejected a $20 million plan to buyout and close the unpopular Maine Energy incinerator.
“We haven’t close the door on MERC,” Saco Mayor Mark Johnston said one day after voters opted to keep the plant open by a surprisingly large 57-43 percent margin. “But if they want Saco to be part of the family they have to make sure we don’t feel like step kids.”
The debate over the fate of the Maine Energy incinerator, which has become increasingly controversial in its two decades of existence, was one of the most hotly contested local issue on the November 8 ballot. In other closely watched results, Chebeague Island voted to secede from Cumberland, Belfast approved a charter change that gives the council final say over zoning changes, and Ogunquit banned fast food restaurants.
The $28 million price tag on closing Maine Energy – with each host city contributing $10 million and the state another $8 million – proved to be a hard sell, especially since MERC would get the money upfront and would still be able to operate the plant for another ten years.
Saco leaders – who strongly favored a shutdown – have already found a willing recipient for the city’s trash in the PERC incinerator in Orrington. They have also narrowed the search for a new transfer station to one of two sites and have spent in excess of $5,000 on engineering studies to build a transfer station, according to Johnston. Both Saco and Biddeford are in the midst of negotiating with Maine Energy over both contract renewals and to resolve legal claims brought against the company.
By a 86-14 percent margin, Chebeague Islanders voted to secede from Cumberland. The secession move is being driven by skyrocketing property values and a perceived lack of influence. Neighboring Long Island seceded from Portland more than a dozen years ago. The secession vote builds momentum for a state law allowing the breakaway. But in a companion vote, Cumberland voted 53-47 percent against letting go. Only the island vote carries weight under state law but the mainland vote may influence the town council’s consideration of the matter. At this point in the secession process, the island voters and the town council must approve sending the matter to the legislature for its consideration.
By a 74-26 percent margin, voters rejected an updated comprehensive plan to guide development. Critics say the plan abridged property rights. Under the plan, farming, for example, would have become a conditional use everywhere in town, meaning there would be no place it is allowed outright. An earlier update to the comprehensive plan failed because it was viewed as anti-business.
Following the lead of neighboring York, Ogunquit became the second community to ban new fast-food restaurants. A citizens group that pushed for the change said formula restaurants were destroying the special character of the town, which is the reason it attracts tourists. The margin was 71-29 percent. The ordinance defines fast food or formula restaurant as one that has “standardized features” and is “substantially identical” to others in the chain. Those features include: employee uniforms, exterior or interior color schemes, architectural design or presentation format.
By a 52-48 percent margin, voters agreed to repeal a controversial pay-per-bag trash collection system that was adopted in August. Repeal could drive up the tax-supported budget for running the town’s transfer station from $400,000 to $700,000 per year. Selectmen must now decide whether to cut other town services or ask voters to override a state law (LD 1) limiting the growth of municipal spending.
By a 52-48 percent margin, voters defeated a $1.2 million senior center at Memorial Park. The 5,000 square foot building would have given seniors a place to socialize, attend classes, and hold functions. Supporters do not plan to push for another vote, but say it may become increasingly difficult to convince seniors of the need for school and library projects favored by younger residents.
The election of Susan Hopkins to an at-large seat on the school committee gives the Green Independent Party four of the nine seats on the committee. She received 39 percent in a three-way race. She joins three other Greens already on the committee: Ben Meiklejohn, Stephen Spring and Jason Toothaker.
By a 72-28 percent margin, voters approved borrowing $1.75 million to improve the town’s wastewater treatment plant, which is intended to improve water quality on the Royal River and Casco Bay.
A $10.3 million bond to make improvements to the school district’s five schools was approved on November 8. The district is comprised of Gray and New Gloucester and the school project’s funding has the state contributing $2.3 million and the locals paying $8 million. Most of money is targeted to health and safety improvements, improving instructional space and providing handicapped accessibility.
By a 60-40 percent margin, voters agreed to abandon town meeting and the board of selectmen in favor of a seven-member council as the town’s legislative body. The school committee had opposed the new charter and its representative form of government, saying it would complicate financial management because large contracts would have to be approved by referendum voters, and because the new council would have disciplinary authority over school personnel. Councilors are due to be elected in May and take office in July.
By a 69-31 percent margin, voters agreed to spend $3 million to remove combined sewer overflows from the sewage system as required by Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection. Town councilors said the package would have no impact on taxes and a “minimal” impact on user rates. Package includes a $2.2 million low-interest loan and a $775,000 grant from the federal government.
By a 68-32 percent margin, voters agreed to allow on-premise consumption of alcohol, lifting a ban that has been in effect since World War II. Six restaurants are eligible to apply for liquor licenses.
By a 60-40 percent margin, voters approved spending $400,000 for a new town office building, half as expensive as a building plan defeated in April. The financing plan calls for spending $200,000 from the capital reserve account and for borrowing up $200,000.
By a 52-48 percent margin, voters agreed to take away citizens’ right to enact zoning changes through the initiative petition process. That authority was given exclusively to the city council in a charter change. A citizens group Belfast First supported the change, saying the citizen initiative process has been misused by a deep-pocket developer who wanted a big-box retail development on four parcels on the city’s east side. Before a recent citizen-initiated zoning change passed, the city council had prohibited retail development larger than 75,000 square feet.
By a whopping 2,222-607 margin, residents approved charter changes that reduce the role of the elected mayor and replace the city administrator’s position with a strengthened city manager. The change in job title won’t affect the status of Michael J. Roy, who will stay on the job as top administrator. As the city manager, Roy will be the city’s chief administrative officer under the charter and will have more control over certain personnel and financial matters. In addition, a finance committee will be established to coordinate budget review. The changes were the first significant changes to the city charter in more than a half century.
Three more towns have abandoned open town meeting in favor of secret ballot, or referendum-style voting, on town budgets.
Voters in Wiscasset, Whitefield and Dover-Foxcroft supported the new voting format in November 8.
They join eight other small towns that have abandoned open town meeting in the past decade and a half. York adopted referendum voting in 1992, followed by Bradley in 1996, Jay in 1997, Lebanon in 2002, and then Jefferson, Monmouth, Windsor and Ogunquit in 2004.
The vote was closest in Whitefield, where the measure passed by a 52-47 percent margin. In Wiscasset, it passed by a 61-39 percent margin, and in Dover-Foxcroft it passed by a 75-25 percent margin.
In referendum-style voting, voters consider a multi-page, line-item budget in the privacy of the voting booth. The format is said to increase voter participation and to give taxpayers more control by eliminating the time-consuming process and often chummy atmosphere at town meeting. Town meeting proponents say the open-meeting format is more efficient and a less costly way of educating voters and more flexible because town meeting voters have the authority to amend budgets, not just vote them up or down.
Wiscasset, Whitefield and Dover-Foxcroft are now considering implementation measures. Whitefield Selectman Bruce Matthews said the biggest challenge is educating voters. “People will need to get information before they vote,” he told the Lincoln County News. Wiscasset Selectman Michael Blagdon said it might take more than a year to implement the change and “do it right.” Dover Foxcroft adopted the measure without any fall-back mechanism to reconsider budgets that are defeated, said Town Manager Jack Clukey. He said some procedures need to be approved to ensure “continuing operations” while defeated budgets are re-voted.