Referenda Roundup: Voters were in a ‘yes’ mood this year

(from Maine Townsman, November 1999)
by Michael L. Starn, Editor

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following roundup of local referenda voting on November 2 is not intended to be all-inclusive. It provides highlights of issues that were decided based on Maine newspaper reports of the various local elections. I would like to thank and credit Tina Means of MMA’s State & Federal Relations department for her work in researching the news articles on the election and writing summaries for MMA’s web site, www.memun.org.

Maine voters were clearly in a spending mood when they entered the ballot box on November 2 as evidenced by the overwhelming support given to all the statewide bond issues. That mood trickled down to the local level as well where a large number of capital improvement projects received voter approval.

Generally speaking, voters were also in a "yes" mood when it came to non-spending local referenda questions. Comprehensive plans were passed, charter commissions were formed, and local government housekeeping measures, for the most part, were accepted by the voters.

SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION

Next spring and summer should be a busy time for Maine’s building contractors considering the large number of school construction projects that received voter approval in November. Many of the approved projects are for repairs or renovations, prompted in part by the state legislature’s $40 million balance in its school facilities funding program started in 1998.

That 1998 law implemented the recommendations of the Governor’s Commission on School Facilities and established the Maine School Facilities Finance Program which provides capital financing for construction, renovation and maintenance of school facilities. In each of the past two legislative sessions, $20 million has been appropriated to the fund. The Legislature’s intention is to continue appropriating money to the fund until it reaches $100 million, roughly half of the projected statewide need for school renovation and maintenance.

The program, administered through the Maine Municipal Bond Bank, provides school districts and municipal school systems access to grants and no interest loans to fund the cost of renovations and/or minor construction projects. First priority is given to roof repairs or replacements, renovations supporting ADA compliance, improvements to air quality, removal of asbestos and the removal of underground oil storage tanks. Projects qualifying for second level priority funding are those not directly related to health, safety or compliance issues but still "deemed" necessary, such as repairs to windows, doors and water/septic systems. Third priority projects include upgrades to learning space and small scale capital improvements.

Repairs

Long delayed and in some cases much needed roof repairs were approved by voters in SAD 48, SAD 31, and SAD 27.

In SAD 48, all six district towns (Newport, Corinna, Palmyra, Plymouth, St. Albans and Hartland) approved the $1.14 million bond issue for roof repairs. In fact, district-wide voter support for the bond issue was very strong which passed by a 3-1 margin. Some of the funds were applied to roof repairs completed this year at district schools; other funds will go towards replacing the roof on Nokomis Regional High School’s gymnasium.

State funds cover 70% of the bond. School Superintendent William Braun was reported to say that the local share of the bond would actually cost district taxpayers less than continued maintenance of the leaky roofs.

SAD 27 voters approved a $671,000 referendum bond issue for new roof construction at Wallagrass, St. Francis and Fort Kent elementary schools. Under the terms of the referendum, the district is responsible for 30% of the total project costs, estimated at $201,300 which is payable over five years.

Residents in the SAD 31 municipalities (Burlington, Edinburg, Enfield, Howland, Lowell, Maxfield, Passadumkeag and Seboeis Plantation) voted for a $2 million bond issue to repair two school roofs. Both schools with leaky roofs – a high school and a middle school – are located in Howland.

Each school’s roofing job is a separate $1 million project. School district taxpayers will pay roughly one-third of the cost with a no-interest loan and the state will pick up the rest. The middle school project is expected to start this spring, but the high school project will be delayed until the state decides the fate of the school district’s application to build a new high school.

Renovation/Expansion

With voter turnout of more than 50 percent, Mount Vernon residents overwhelmingly approved two construction projects for the town’s elementary school. The two proposals are for a 4500 sq. ft. addition to the current facility, removal of all asbestos in the school, and a few other small projects. The total cost of the two bond issues is estimated at $527,000. The average property tax impact, based on a $75,000 home, of the bonds will be an increase of about $31 per year for 10 years.

All four Mt. Desert Island towns in School Union 98 (Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor and Tremont) voted to accept a $7.2 million bond for MDI High School’s additions and renovations. With interest, the 20-year bond is estimated to cost the towns a total of $12 million by the time it is paid off. Also approved for funding was a $750,000 sports complex, half of which is to be paid for by private donations. Voters authorized raising $375,000 for the project.

Southwest Harbor residents took school funding a step further by approving a $5.2 million expansion and renovation of the town’s elementary school. School improvements under the bond include upgrades to the ventilation, electrical and plumbing systems, safer traffic patterns, roof repairs, additional storage space and improved bathroom facilities, a new gym and music room.

In Trenton, voters approved a $1.3 million addition to the local elementary school. A second question which asks residents to fund a new $600,000 gymnasium narrowly passed, 252-250.

Voters in Bath overwhelmingly approved (2,094-505) borrowing up to $5.6 million for improvements to the city’s middle school. A 20,000 sq. ft. expansion and renovations to the 40+ year-old building will give the school an updated heating and ventilation system, better security, an enlarged library, four new science labs, accessibility for the disabled, new computer labs and a bigger cafeteria.

New Schools

Only one of SAD 59’s four towns approved the referendum question to construct a new elementary school, but residents in that one town voted so overwhelmingly in favor of the $4.8 million bond issue that it passed by a comfortable 2-1 margin. Voters in Athens, Brighton Plantation and Starks narrowly defeated the school proposal, but in Madison, where the school will be built, a much larger number of voters supported the project which received district-wide approval, 1,077-468.

Voters in SAD 56 (Franklin, Searsport and Stockton Springs), by a narrow margin, approved the construction of a new building to replace the Franklin Central School which was recently forced to close because of poor air quality.

The towns of Oakland, Belgrade and Sidney, which comprise SAD 47, got a step closer to a new middle school when voters gave overwhelming support to a plan to buy a strip of woodland bordering the eastern edge of Messalonskee High School. The district has filed applications with the state to build a new middle school near the high school and needed the additional land to have adequate space to build the new school.

Voters in South Portland appeared to be the lone dissenters when it came to approving a school bond issue. A $25.3 million plan to modernize and consolidate the city’s elementary schools was decisively defeated, 65 to 35 percent. If the bond issue had passed, it would have expanded and renovated four elementary schools and closed three schools. The Board of Education’s proposal came after 13 years of study and debate about the city’s aging school buildings. By far the most expensive proposal in the city’s history and the largest local bond issue in the state this year, the project would have doubled the city’s outstanding debt and increased property taxes by 6.6 percent.

CHANGING GOVERNMENT

In Gray, Belfast and Dexter, voters decided to establish charter commissions to consider revisions to their local charters. Gray residents voted for a nine-member commission; Belfast went with five-members; and Dexter decided on a six-member commission. In Belfast, the city council brought the issue of the charter commission before voters in response to a citizens’ petition which had requested a charter amendment that would have provided a "people’s veto" on council actions. City Attorney William Kelly advised the council that such an action went beyond a charter amendment and recommended the referendum question on forming a charter commission.

The Town of Madrid will be a town no more as of July 1, 2000. Residents chose to deorganize the town on November 2, with exactly the two-thirds, super-majority required by state law. With 114 votes cast, 76 voted for deorganization and 38 voted against it. The latest vote was the final one needed to deorganize following a Private and Special Law enacted during the last session of the Maine Legislature, which gave the townspeople permission to deorganize. Two critical issues behind the deorganization movement were the large tracts of land in tree growth and high education costs. Madrid became a town in 1836.

Topsy-turvey governmental change was happening in Buxton this month. Two decisions of previous town meetings were reversed. Voters decided that a five-member board of selectmen was not what the town wanted, reversing a decision made at this year’s March town meeting to expand it to five. And, they decided to move the annual town meeting from March to the second Tuesday in June, overturning a vote at the June, 1998 town meeting where residents had switched it from June to March.

In Wales, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to combine the offices of town clerk and tax collector. Both positions are currently elected. Had the article passed, it would have given selectmen the power to appoint a person to the combined position.

Voters in Hallowell approved three amendments to the city charter. One change moved the deadline for filing nomination papers for city offices to coincide with state and federal election laws; another allows the council to enact orders, ordinances and resolutions without a 10-day waiting period; and finally, the council got voter approval to approach lending institutions for the purchase of new equipment or property.

LAND USE CHANGES

In Bar Harbor, voters approved four amendments to the town’s land use ordinance. Voters adopted revised design review provisions, raised fence height requirements outside the business and industrial districts, gave shoreland property owners the right to rebuild nonconforming structures that have been removed, damaged or destroyed, and more clearly defined what can be brought before the board of appeals.

Dexter residents voted in favor of a local land use ordinance this year. The vote was 688-556 enacting the ordinance that will govern future growth in the community.

Voters in Orland and Greene approved comprehensive plans on November 2. Slightly more than half of the registered voters in Greene turned out at this year’s election, a much heavier turnout than expected causing the town to run out of printed ballots before the polls closed. The Orland plan had been three years in the making and was based on a townwide survey conducted in the early stages of the plan’s development. Preserving and protecting the town’s water bodies is a key component of Orland’s comprehensive plan.

In Yarmouth, voters rejected a proposed zoning change that would have forced developers to have 130 feet of road frontage for each housing unit built. The proponents of the change were residents of a neighborhood where a 12-unit condominium housing project is planned. The current ordinance requires 130 feet of road for a single lot, regardless of the number of housing units.

CAPITAL EXPENDITURES

In Hampden, voters approved a referendum question authorizing the town council to borrow $1.8 million to develop the infrastructure for a business park, and another question that authorized the council to borrow $1.2 million for land acquisition and related costs. The proposed business park will be located on a 390-acre site on Route 202.

By more than a 2-1 margin, Wells voters agreed to spend $299,800 on a four-acre site on Route 109 that potentially will be used to expand the town hall and add new police and fire stations.

In Augusta, the only local referendum question on the ballot passed easily, 3,943-1,422, setting in motion the spending of almost a million dollars for capital improvement projects. The $922,500 bond issue spreads the money out among a number of municipal buildings and facilities, including $180,000 of improvements to two fire stations, $90,000 for roofing and stonework repairs at the Lithgow Library, various improvements to the City Center, amenities and improvements at local recreational areas, $200,000 to improve the city-owned Naval Reserve Building, and $250,000 of improvements and repairs to the public works garage.

A new $1.7 million public works garage received voter approval in Gorham. Called for in the 1993 comprehensive plan, the garage will require $1.3 million in borrowed funds to go with $375,000 town officials have already set aside for the project.

Townspeople in Lincoln approved the purchase of a new grader for the public works department. The $150,000 purchase (net cost) exceeded the council’s $100,000 spending authority, thus requiring voter approval.

The residents of York County approved a $20 million bond issue for a new county jail. The plan is to build the 250-bed jail on land off Route 4 in Alfred. Completion of the project is expected in less than two years. An accompanying bond issue for $5 million to build new county offices in the current jail was defeated.

FINANCE/TAX ISSUES

The voters of SAD 50 (Thomaston, St. George and Cushing) strongly rejected a proposal to change the district’s cost-sharing formula among its members. The proposed measure would have changed the current 50-50 mix of valuation/pupils to 70-30. Not surprisingly, Thomaston voters supported the change and St. George and Cushing residents overwhelmingly voted against it. Thomaston would have paid $239,876 (11%) less in local education costs if the formula change had been approved, and the other two communities, with higher per pupil valuations, would have paid more.

An advisory referendum vote in Millinocket called for capping this year’s tax rate at 20 mills, more than 4 mills under the current rate. The tax cap proposal was approved 1,063-982. Town and school officials say the lower tax rate would translate into budget cuts of more than $1 million. The vote does not legally bind the town council, according to a legal opinion given town councilors. Coincidental to the referendum vote, the town’s largest taxpayer, Great Northern Paper Co., filed a $94,927,852 property tax abatement request on October 8, just six minutes before the abatement request deadline.

In Lamoine, voters narrowly passed a measure that directs selectmen to place open-ended warrant articles before the annual town meeting. The 304-300 vote means that town meeting participants will now be allowed to exceed amounts recommended by selectmen on warrant articles. In the past, budget articles have been written in a "capped" manner so that voters could only approve or reduce the recommended amount.

A 10-year tuition contract with SAD 47 (Oakland, Belgrade and Sidney) was approved 389-164 by Rome voters on November 2. Townspeople had rejected district membership earlier this year by a 238-143 vote. The contract obligates Rome to pay a tuition rate equivalent to district membership rates. In other words, the town will pay the same amount in tuition that it would pay if it were a full district member. Children from Rome have attended SAD 47 schools since the district was formed. While Rome school committee members have been invited to attend SAD directors’ meetings, town representatives will not be able to vote on district matters.

In the City of Portland, voters agreed to let the city borrow money to pay off its unfunded liability to the Maine State Retirement System. By borrowing money at today's low interest rates, the city will save between $10 and $55 million over the next 28 years.

OTHER ISSUES

A local referendum issue receiving statewide media attention was voted on in Falmouth where residents decisively rejected a town charter change that would have repealed the town’s new gay rights ordinance. The 2,667-1,876 vote means that an anti-discrimination ordinance passed by the town council in April, 1999, will stay on the books. The proposed charter change, brought forth by a citizens’ petition, would have prohibited the council from passing any ordinance, policy or regulation regarding sexual orientation.

Knox County residents defeated a proposal to establish an Enhanced 911 dispatch center. The $500,000 bond issue was defeated by a 6,838-6,324 vote. Plans were to have the E 911 center up and running by 2001. Most of the monies from the bond issue would have paid to build and equip a 1800 sq. ft. addition to the county law enforcement facility in Rockland.

And, finally, the residents of Freeport took a bold step forward in the prevention of tooth decay by overwhelmingly voting in favor of adding fluoride to the public water supply.