TOWN MEETINGS: New buildings, Super Park, roads, land use…
(from Maine Townsman, April 1999)
By Michael L. Starn, Editor

The first round of town meetings in 1999 was a mixed bag with a lot of different issues debated, such as membership central Maine’s "Super Park", the purchase of fire trucks, the construction of new town offices, land use ordinances, road issues, and elected vs. appointed positions. For some communities, attendance was good, while in others it was down. For some, action on the town meeting warrant was swift, while for others the debate went on and on. Generally speaking, you’d have to say that this year’s March town meeting season was your run-of-the-mill version . . . yet, "It’s what Maine local government is all about."

ATTENDANCE/LENGTH OF MEETING

Like most years, controversy (or the expectation of it) is what brings out the people. Long-time Town Manager Howard Munday of Oxford (pop. 3,881) called this year’s gathering "the shortest town meeting I can remember". All 58 articles on the warrant passed with little controversy and the meeting lasted just two and a half hours.

Except for a lively debate on a $950 stipend for the animal control officer, St. Agatha’s town meeting was pretty uneventful. The 55-minute affair attracted only 22 residents in this northern Aroostook town of about 900 people.

Another northern Aroostook community, St. John’s Plantation fared better on attendance with 40 of its 300 residents showing up at Plantation Hall. The larger attendance didn’t slow them down any. Plantation business for ’99 was conducted in about half an hour.

The 13 residents that showed up at the Magalloway Plantation (pop. 40) meeting were not nearly so quick in conducting municipal business. For almost two hours, these New Hampshire border, Oxford County residents debated issues like a change in the cemetery fence, and whether or not to make contributions to the American Red Cross, ambulance district and Rangeley Health Center. All articles related to the three contributions failed, as did the cemetery fence change.

Controversy brought residents out in Harpswell. Over 1,000 people voted by secret ballot on two proposed changes to the structure of town government (see results below).

BUILDINGS PROJECTS

Funding requests for municipal construction projects were above normal at this year’s March town meetings.

Town Offices

Plans to renovate a church, purchased by the town last year, into a new town hall in downtown Kennebunkport hit another snag at this year’s town meeting. The majority of the 150 residents attending town meeting rejected the selectmen’s plan to sell the old Town Hall, saying that the town shouldn’t rush into it. Selectmen had wanted to use the anticipated $200,000 from the sale of the 40-year-old building to reduce the amount needed to finance the new municipal building.

Residents in the Town of Liberty, whose town office was destroyed by fire in January, decided at this year’s town meeting to construct a new building on the site of the former Liberty Community Building. Residents, however, did not say if they wanted to replace the destroyed building with another community center or just have a new town office. Selectmen were instructed to develop options on the new building by September 30 for the townspeople to consider.

The Town of Weld (pop. 423) in Franklin County, like several other Maine communities, is entertaining the idea of having a combined town office/post office. The U.S. Postal Service proffered the idea at this year’s town meeting. The town has about $36,000 set aside in a town office reserve fund. Informational meetings will be held this spring to air the postal service’s proposal.

The new municipal building in Clifton (pop. 640) wasn’t quite ready for this year’s town meeting. So, residents met at Comins Hall in nearby Eddington.

In Morrill (pop. 747), residents added $5,000 to their town office reserve account, bringing the total up to $28,000. With town officials now working out of their homes, the plan is to convert the former fire station into a town office. Work will begin this summer.

Fire Stations

In New Sharon and Rome, fire stations are on the horizon, but residents are proceeding cautiously.

Residents in New Sharon took the most positive step at town meeting by approving a concept plan for a new fire station and authorizing the town’s firefighters to continue the process with the idea that a more specific plan, with costs, would be presented at next year’s town meeting.

In Rome, residents were a little more cautious. After approving $70,000 for a proposed fire house last year, this year’s town meeting voted to shelve plans for a new fire station until a full study of the cost is completed. Supporters of the new fire station had sought additional funding at this year’s meeting which they said was needed to build the new facility.

EQUIPMENT PURCHASES

Town meeting voters are usually conservative when it comes to equipment purchases and this year most town meetings continued in that tradition.

In Newfield (pop. 1,094) in York County, townspeople appropriated $30,000 into its reserve account for the purchase of a new fire truck. With about $80,000 now in the account, town officials expect to purchase this fall.

Also in York County, the Town of Waterboro (pop. 5,223) got town meeting approval to finance its new $120,000 fire truck over eight years.

In West Gardiner, residents voted to spend up to $150,000 to replace two plow trucks – a 30 year old Mack truck and 16-year old Ford. The trucks were described as unsafe by both the current and former road commissioner.

St. Albans residents were more generous than the selectmen or budget committee, as they added $20,000 to the recommended $45,000 warrant article to purchase a new public works truck. Townspeople said the two-wheel model that selectmen and budget committee members were recommending was inadequate and wanted the town to purchase a 4-wheel drive model instead.

And, in Solon, voters approved a $45,000 appropriation to replace the town’s 1958 model grader that finally broke down the week of town meeting.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

The big economic development news this town meeting season – at least for central Maine communities – was the Kennebec Regional Business Park (KRBP), a.k.a., Super Park.

So far, according to reports in the Kennebec Journal, 15 communities have voted to commit funds toward the development of the Super Park. The KRBP Authority is looking to secure enough municipal funding to reach its $3 billion threshold in property valuation. The idea of the Super Park is that investors (communities) would start to see a return (shared property tax revenue) in about six years once businesses start locating on the 300 acre Oakland site.

The initial phase of the park development is expected to cost $5.2 million, with the state and federal governments pitching in $1 million apiece and the remaining $3.2 million coming from bonds secured by the "investing" communities.

The big payoff for communities, however, isn’t the shared property tax revenues, according to Authority officials, "it’s the jobs". A feasibility study, commissioned by the Authority, projects 2,500 jobs tied directly to business activity in the Super Park and another 2,400 indirect jobs that will support the park’s businesses and related developments.

From town meeting reports that the TOWNSMAN reviewed for this article, the following communities voted to support funding requests for the Super Park: Hartland, Sidney, Benton, Starks, Cornville, St. Albans, and Solon. Voting against the Super Park were Detroit, New Portland and Cambridge. Waterville and Oakland councils are known to have voted in favor of the Super Park earlier this year, and recent newspaper articles have reported that Augusta’s city council has decided to put the question before voters on June 1.

ROADS

Can you imagine having town meeting without a discussion of road issues? While roads did not make many of the headlines in the town meeting reports, in almost every newspaper article on town meetings road issues got some ink.

In Thorndike, voters approved a $99,500 appropriation as the local match for a $400,000 grant application that, if approved, will provide funds to work on culvert, ditches and bridge repairs in order to mitigate future flooding.

In Brighton Plantation (pop. 92), voters gave approval to taking $17,400 out of its surplus to pay the local share of repair to the Corson Brook bridge. The state will pick up the remaining cost of the $60,000 project.

One of the more controversial road topics this year was the use of salt/sand piles by residents. Several communities placed restrictions on residents’ use – like one 5 gallon bucket per storm and allowing access only at specified times. The issue became so heated in Burnham that Road Commissioner Roger Huff resigned after the voters rejected a measure that would have allowed residents 10 gallons of sand from the town pile after each winter storm.

LAND USE

Very little support showed up this year for any type of land use regulation.

Embden (pop. 667) residents overwhelmingly rejected a proposed amendment to the town’s shoreland zoning ordinance that would have required many owners of waterfront camps and homes to install new septic systems. The ordinance change would have required shoreland property owners, who use their camps more than two months during the year, to have engineered septic systems, meeting state specifications, in place by December 31, 1999.

In Alfred, an eight-page ordinance regulating telecommunications towers was turned down, nearly unanimously, by town meeting voters. According to Town Clerk Almon Williams the fact that the ordinance made no special provision for public safety communications towers led to its undoing.

Several articles were on the town meeting warrant in Denmark that would have amended the town’s zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan. They all failed. For example, one of the defeated articles would have increased the minimum lot size from 40,000 to 80,000 sq. ft.

STRUCTURAL CHANGES

Proposed structural changes in town government usually face a somewhat conservative town meeting crowd, making comments like "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" or "Why do we want to go and change that, we’ve always done it this way".

That conservative approach was at play again this year. Some notable attempts to separate or combine municipal positions, to move from elected to appointed, or to change the form of government failed to gain voter approval.

• In Freedom, residents voted down an article that would have set term limits for the positions of treasurer, excise tax collector, tax collector and clerk.

• Kingfield voters defeated a proposal to have the combined, elected position of town clerk, tax collector and treasurer appointed by the selectmen.

• In Harpswell, residents disapprove of making any major changes to the town’s form of government. They rejected one proposal to expand the board of selectmen from three to five members and another that would have allowed the selectmen to hire a town manager.

• A tabling motion came quickly for a proposal in Robbinston to require the school budget to be presented in a line-item format. The article’s proponent, resident Mike Clark, said that with a line item budget the school board would be prohibited from using money for anything other than what it was designated for (the same way that municipal budgets are constructed and approved). A school board member was reported to respond, "We need more money for maintenance and stuff, but we don’t need a line-item budget."

• Highland Plantation (pop. 36) voters let stand a policy that has fire department members appointing their chief. An article to make the position elected failed.

• The residents of Nobleboro rejected the idea of giving selectmen authority to spend money that had been set aside in reserve accounts. The two reserve accounts are for a future town hall and major fire department expenses (probably a new fire truck). By not approving an article that would have allowed selectmen to spend these funds, Nobleboro voters were telling selectmen that they would have to present specific spending proposals to the residents at future town meetings.

PROPERTY TAXES/SPENDING

Selectmen, budget committees, and town meetings appeared to be quite frugal this year. Here’s a sampling of that frugality.

• In Warren, the $1.1 million municipal budget represented roughly a two percent increase over the previous year’s budget.

• In Peru, selectmen expect the municipal tax rate to stay the same, at $21 per $1,000. By a narrow margin, 26-23, voters decided that a revaluation was needed, since it has been over 10 years since the last reappraisal.

• In North Haven, the town’s muncipal expenses increased by less than one percent over last year.

• Depending on education costs, Fort Kent property taxpayers could see a mill rate decrease this year following the actions of town meeting.

• With the municipal budget in Waterboro about the same as last year’s, selectmen don’t expect any tax rate increase, unless there are surprises awaiting the town in the school budget.

• In Palermo, voters held the line on expenditures and with increased excise tax revenues, the townspeople may see a reduction in their property tax bills this year. Of course, they’ll have to wait and see what the school budget does to the town’s property tax levy.

• No change is expected in Clifton’s property tax rate this year, following town meeting and based on preliminary budget information supplied by school officials.

• Surplus and unexpended road funds allowed Weld voters to shave $18,681 off the 1998 municipal appropriation.

• The $768,000 municipal appropriation in Oxford represents about a one percent increase over last year.

MISCELLANEOUS ISSUES

Every town meeting season has its miscellaneous or quirky issues. This year was no different.

In Monroe, town meeting attendees voted down a resolution that asked the town to call on all nations that have nuclear weapons to abolish their stockpiles and eliminate all weapons by the year 2000. Selectman Charles Francis was reported to say that the resolution was rejected because it was perceived as "a slap in the face to all veterans".

The E. Howard clock in the tower of the Stewart Library in Corinna reliably kept time for many years beginning in 1897. Over the last few years, the clock began to run intermittently and eventually stopped. Approximately 9 ft. in diameter and weighing about 1,300 pounds, the E. Howard clock will mark time again as voters approved a $8,000 appropriation to go toward its restoration.

Sabattus voters approved a smoking ban in most public places. The ordinance, which passed 234-167, prohibits smoking in all enclosed public places within the town, including restaurants, retail stores and any other facility into which the public is invited or allowed. Bars are exempted.

Castine voters approved an anti-discrimination ordinance. The ordinance declares it the policy of the town "to prevent discrimination in employment, town services, housing, access to public accommodations, and education because of sexual orientation."

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The preceding highlights of March town meetings are not intended to be a comprehensive reporting on all the municipalities that held their annual town meetings in March. The author relied almost exclusively on newspaper articles that reported the results of town meetings. In so doing, we apologize if any errors in the original accounts of town meetings were repeated, and we thank Maine’s newspapers – particularly the Maine Sunday Telegram, Bangor Daily News, and Central Maine Newspapers – for their coverage of Maine town meetings. A follow-up article on the May and June town meetings will appear in the July issue of the TOWNSMAN.