Town Meetings: Spring gatherings are a 'study in contrasts'
(from Maine Townsman, April 1997)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

AUTHOR'S NOTE: As stated in previous years' summaries, any attempt to generalize about action taken at Maine's town meetings is difficult, if not dangerous. One tries every nevertheless, to find the common thread(s), knowing full well that one finds what one looks for and may in fact overlook what one is not looking for. Also, knowing full well that for every example of an apparent trend there are numerous exceptions to it. This year's summary, in an attempt to go beyond trends, includes a list of articles that have appeared in the MAINE TOWNSMAN to provide a broader perspective on the issues.

A study in contrasts. That's one thing one can say with assurance about town meeting this year, every year. If you doubt it, take note:

In Hebron (pop. 914), where town business is conducted at the homes of the treasurer, tax collector and town clerk and the selectmen meet at the fire station, the town meeting appointed a committee this year to look into the advisability of constructing a town office. In contrast, Harpswell (pop. 4,992), in an effort to make government more accessible, put its town warrant on the World Wide Web this year. The address, thanks to the Curtis Memorial Library, was http://www.curtislibrary.com/harpswell.htm.

If there was another thing one could say with assurance this year, every year, it is that town meeting is flexible. Given a better understanding of the issue, and time enough to let the information gel, town meeting is capable of and more than willing to reverse any previous vote. Which is to say, if at first you don't succeed . . .

That's what happened in Anson (pop 2,512) this year where the town meeting agreed to do away with the town-subsidized trash disposal system and replace it with one in which the costs are borne by individuals. Last fall, town meeting had said "nay" to such an idea. This spring, after mulling it over for several months, after realizing that the town could lower the tax rate by 1 mill, town meeting reversed itself and said "yea".

Generalities aside, if there was one last thing you could say with assurance about this first spate of town meetings '97 (the second round will occur in May), it was that most, now free from state-mandated comprehensive plans and dump closures, turned their full attention to getting their town government in order.

Which is to say, they focused on revaluations, pay raises, whether to appoint or elect their officials, whether or not to get additional help, whether or not, like Hebron, to do "something" about the town office, and last, but not least, whether or not to do something about the high cost of education. This is not to say there was no talk of comprehensive plans and trash and other mandated items. Just less talk.

A closer look at who did what, and some nuts and bolts background on the issues follows.

GETTING TOWN GOVERNMENT IN ORDER

Assessing

While assessing was the focus of a number of town meeting articles, only three municipalities, Harpswell, Woodstock, and Verona, said "yes" to the board's request to hire professional assessors to conduct a townwide revaluation.

In doing so, Harpswell dramatically reversed a recent vote that did away with the town's newly established assessing office and the man they had hired to do the revaluation. In doing so, town meeting approved borrowing $175,000 to get the job done. They had come to the same decision, two years ago, but then changed their mind last summer after heavy lobbying from a local taxpayers group and a year of bad relations with the new assessor. This time they agreed to use an "outside firm".

In Woodstock (pop. 1,226), town meeting appropriated $22,500 from the Tree Growth fund for each of two years to pay for a town wide revaluation. Town Manager Vern Maxfield told the TOWNSMAN, "It was time." The town's assessment ratio was 73 percent; its quality ratio was 19; the last revaluation was in 1983. In Verona (pop. 543), they agreed to take up to $15,000 from surplus to hire someone to do the first revaluation of the town in 13 years.

Requests for help in doing revaluations in other towns will have to wait for better times. In Weld (pop. 427), they worried what a revaluation would do to their school subsidy and hedged their bet, raising only $5,000 of the $25,000 that had been requested, saying they wanted "to go slow", fearing a revaluation would reduce their school subsidy.

In Plymouth (pop. 1,129), a request by the selectmen to hire a professional for $45,000 to conduct a revaluation of the town was defeated. In St. Albans (pop. 1,824), where a town-wide revaluation has not been conducted in almost 20 years, voters said no overwhelmingly to an article to raise $26,000 for each of two years to hire a professional revaluation.

Revaluations aside, in Knox (pop. 711), they voted down a request by the selectmen to get out from under their assessing responsibilities by making the assessors' job an appointed one. But they were lucky in Starks (pop. 543), where voters approved splitting the board of selectmen and assessors into two separate elected bodies.

AT ISSUE: A number of issues appear to be at stake in the revaluation votes. The first and foremost are the legal. The Constitution(Article IX, Section 7) of Maine requires assessors to conduct a revaluation at least every ten years. MRSA Title 36, Section 327 requires assessors to achieve a minimum assessment ratio of 70 percent and an equity ratio no more than 20. For those in municipalities with properq classified under the Tree Growth tax law, less than 70 percent results in a loss of state reimbursement dollars.

For overburdened selectmen the issue is a personal one. Many feel, given all the other responsibilities they have, that they do not have the time to be trained in, let alone practice, the art of assessing. At last count, there were approximately 45 municipalities that have an elected board of assessors that are separate from the board of selectmen. And upwards of 80 municipalities hire an assessors' agent.

For taxpayers the issue is steeped in rising costs and misunderstanding. On the one hand, hiring someone to do what the selectmen have traditionally done is not only costly to the town, it might also be costly to them personally. On the other hand, they do not understand that a revaluation is a means of achieving taxpayer equity; nor do they realize that the school subsidy is derived from the state valuation, not the municipal valuation.

Salaries

If raising monies for revaluations was not the first order of the day during this first spate of town meetings, raising salaries was.

Industry (pop.738) voters, acting on a citizen-initiated petition, raised the treasurer's and clerk's wages from $13,050 to $15,000 and the first selectman's salary from $2,000 to $2,500; in the case of the second and third selectmen their salaries rose from $1,500 to $2,000.

They also got raises in Vienna (pop. 446). The treasurer received a $2,000 raise; the town clerk a $925 raise. The selectmen received raises of $350 each; half of what was requested. In Sedgwick (pop.905), they voted to raise the first selectmen's salary from $5,000 to $7,000 a year and to increase the second and third selectmen's salaries from $2,000 to $2,500. In Minot, they gave $1,000 raises to each of the selectmen, upping their salaries to $4,000 each.

Not given to incremental increases, Searsmont voters upped the salary of the librarian from $1,000 to $5,000; last year the town upped the salary of the first selectman from $2,400 to $8,000. So it was in Freedom, where town meeting raised the first selectman's salary from $3,000 to $5,000; where the second and third selectmen's pay rose from $1,000 to $1,500.

And last but not least, Detroit's town meeting upped the salary of the chairman of the board of selectmen, but not before voting to eliminate the titles of first, second and third selectmen, allowing the board to elect its own chair. Historically, Detroit's first selectman was paid more than the other two and automatically assumed the chairmanship. As a result of action taken by town meeting, the chair will earn $4,000; the other two members will earn $2,000 each.

AT ISSUE: Behind the raises is recognition of massive hours of work for a supposedly part-time job. Those that do not have a town manager or administrative assistant have looked to the so-called "first selectman" to carry the major portion of the load; hence the higher salary for the first selectmen. It should be noted here the distinction of first, second and third selectmen is not rooted in law, but rather in tradition.

According to MMA's latest Salary Survey ('96), selectmen's salaries are meted out in different amounts and different ways. In Howland, all three selectmen are paid $25 a meeting; in Stonington, the first selectman is paid $1,500 a year and the other two are paid $1,000 a year; in Hollis, the first selectman is paid $10,000 a year and the other two selectmen are paid $8,500 each.

Getting More Help

As noted above, raises don't always do it when there is just too much for one board to do. But as indicated below the process of hiring help is not always a swift one. It takes time . . .

Town meeting in Swanville (pop. 1,200) said it was not ready to vote to hire a "town administrator" beginning in March 1998; they directed the selectmen to come back to the next town meeting with a plan to do so. Back in 1992, the town amended its charter to allow for the hiring of an administrator, as there was growing realization that the town had outgrown the current system of three part-time selectmen.

In Strong (pop. 1,335), they also backed off from action that would have brought about a town manager form of government, saying a vote on the issue was "premature" in that certain procedures, including a public hearing had to be held before a vote could be taken. Three years ago residents voted to "look into the matter".

Town managers aside, Harpswell (pop. 4,922), voted to hire an administrative assistant to run the day-to-day operations of the town office at a cost of $30,000 a year ($45,000 if you count benefits). The position was recommended last year by a committee but was voted down by town meeting. Proponents this year argued that Harpswell was one of the two largest towns in the state not to have a professional administrator.

Two years ago, they said no to adopting a town manager form of government in Benton (pop. 2,308). This year, they said yes to forming a committee to look into hiring an administrative assistant, noting that a good portion of the cost was already covered by the salaries paid to the three selectmen, which would be cut if the assistant was hired.

In Starks (pop. 543), they agreed to develop an ordinance to create the position of an administrative assistant and to draw up the terms of employment. As planned, the 1998 town meeting would establish the specific dollar amount to be paid for the position.

And last but not least, in Cushing (pop. 1,034), voters said no to an article that would have created a fulltime office position to receive licenses and perform other duties. It was a position, the selectmen advocated for, not only this year, but last year as well.

AT ISSUE:

Changing the form of government takes time. Not only are there procedures to be followed in the case of adopting the town manager form of government, but there is a fear of losing control of government to a town manager. However, managers are administrators, carrying out the wishes of the selectmen, who constitute the executive branch of the government, while the town meeting constitutes the legislative branch of the government.

There are two ways to adopt the town manager form of government: through the lengthy process of adopting a charter, or through the less lengthy process of adopting the statutory town manager plan. Adoption of the town manager form of government through a charter, while more complex and lengthy, allows a town greater flexibility than that provided under the statutory town manager plan. Adoption of the town manager plan requires adoption at least 60 days prior to the town meeting at which it is to go into effect. Unlike the adoption of the town manager form of government, there is no required process for hiring an administrative assistant, except of course putting an article on the warrant to fund the position.

At last count 135 pure town meeting municipalities had a manager; they include six municipalities in Aroostook County which share managers with other towns. At last count 52 pure town meeting towns had an administrative assistant.

Electing or Appointing

To elect or appoint? The annual question. Whether it is better to elect the road commissioner, tax collector, treasurer, or to appoint them?

In Mount Vernon, they decided to break from tradition and appoint the town clerk/tax collector. It took three votes and an hour's debate, but in the end the change squeaked through by a vote of 26 to 25. Prior to the switch, the town clerk/tax collector worked in the town office with an appointed administrative assistant. The change, argued the proponents, would make for a more efficient office.

They also voted to appoint the town clerk in Stonington. But in Waterboro, they upheld a decision made last year to make the tax collector's and treasurer's positions elected. Prior to last year's vote, the two positions and the town clerk responsibilities were held by one person. Last year they voted to split it into three and make all three elected.

In Prospect, town meeting said no to increasing the term of the town clerk from one year to three years, even though the selectmen said it would bring more stability to the elected position. Last year, town meeting said no to making the position appointed.

In Waldo, they voted to elect the full-time code enforcement officer, rather than allow the selectmen to appoint him, as they have done in the past. But in essence there was little or no change as they voted in the person who had been previously appointed.

When it came to the road commissioner, Newry decided against taking the road commissioner's responsibilities away from the board of selectmen. Two years ago they did away with the office and hired a private contractor for road maintenance. The selectmen wanted to re-establish the position so someone could prioritize the projects, develop a maintenance schedule, and supervise and inspect the work, but the town meeting voted no. In Upton, they voted to return to an earlier practice of appointing the road commissioner.

AT ISSUE:

Control and continuity are the issues when it comes to appointing or electing municipal officials. Those who advocate appointing argue it allows for continuity and quality; they say it also allows for a more efficient government with the appointed position accountable on a day-to-day basis to the elected officials. Those who advocate electing argue it avoids cronyism or the politics of having the position filled by the selectmen. They also say having the position elected means the individual elected will be service-oriented as they serve at the will of the people who elected them. They also say it can save money as appointed positions are often full-time when they need not necessarily be.

CONSTRUCTING OR RENOVATING TOWN OFFICES

If anything else could be said with assurance this year, it is that this was the year of the town office, expanded and converted.

In Kennebunkport (pop. 3,213), voters said yes to buying a church at a cost of $490,000 and converting it to a new town hall. In New Vineyard (pop. 736), they appropriated $10,000 to build an addition to the town library to serve as a permanent home for the town office.And they said yes in Sidney (pop.2,827) to a request to double the size of the town office at a cost of $169,000. They also voted for an addition to the town office in South Thomaston (pop. 2,330). For $53,000 they will get more space for the clerk, assessor and code enforcement officer, not to mention handicap access and the rewiring of the office.

As noted above, in Hebron, residents took a first step towards moving town business out of the kitchen by voting to establish a committee to look into the construction of a town office. In Nobleboro (pop. 1,522), acknowledging that they were moving slowly on the issue, town meeting voted to raise $2,000 to study various options for a new town hall.

In Westport (pop. 698), they've already looked and agreed to make the move out of the kitchen of the clerk. Town meeting added $30,000 to $80,000 already put aside towards constructing a first-ever town office and meeting space for a total cost of $150,000. Residents plan to return in three months to vote on needed additional funds but said they hoped to reduce the total cost by using as much volunteer labor as possible. Plans are to continue to use the 200 year old town meeting hall for the annual meeting.

Plans were also the order of the day in Pittston (pop.2,494), where voters told elected officials to come back with plans for a bigger town office. The selectmen had asked for $30,000 to add a small room to the rear of the town office; voters said it wasn't big enough and put the money in a reserve account, but not before they raised an additional $2,000 for design work on the addition.

Not every attempt at new or expanded quarters met with success, however. In Cushing (pop.1,034), for the second year in a row they said no to a request to spend $20,000 to expand the town office. They also said no in Minot (pop.1,654), for the second year in a row, to plans to triple the space of the current town office. The margin of defeat this time round (60-51) was considerably narrower than when voters rejected it last year (107-31).

AT ISSUE: To build anew or add on to the existing structure or recycle an existing structure; where to locate or not; how to pay for it all. These are the questions that are raised whenever town meeting wrestles with the question: what to do if anything about the town office/hall.

What is most common, however, is the slow development of the plan, as voters in Kennebunkport will attest to. Reports are that talk of replacing the town hall began more than 20 years ago. Reports are that voters rejected proposals in 1988, 1992, and 1994 to build or buy a building to house both the town offices and police station as too expensive. Reports are that an attempt to buy the church five years ago for $700,000 was rejected by voters. The price has come down considerably since then. Reports are that there are still decisions to be made, like a renovation plan and a way to finance it and even if it will really house the town offices.

But it isn't always the cost that creates the high hurdle, as voters in Vinalhaven will attest to. This year's meeting voted no to constructing a new municipal building on a town-owned lot on the waterfront, despite the fact that last year they approved spending $5,000 to draw up plans for a building on the site. This year, voters said placing the building there might interfere with fishermen who unload traps on the site. A straw poll at town meeting, however, indicated it did want a new building on some other site. And so it goes as the process begins anew.

DOING SOMETHING ABOUT EDUCATION COSTS

While most town meetings focused on getting town government in order, a handful also attempted to get school spending in order.

Perhaps the most out of order is in The Forks Plantation (pop. 31), where it is costing the town about $120,000 a year to send its two schoolage children to classes in School Administrative District (SAD) 13. Voters said "yes" to spending $5,000 to investigate the costs and legalities associated with leaving the district. Last year, the town was unsuccessful in changing the district's formula to include the number of students in the local share formula, as a way of decreasing its costs.

In Belgrade (pop.2,571), it was the adoption by town meeting of a non-binding referendum that would force neighboring Rome (pop. 802) to join SAD 47. Rome currently pays $80,000 in tuition costs to the school district. Belgrade residents, who argue they pay more than their fair share to the school district, say Rome isn't paying its way as its tuition does not cover its share of capital costs. Rome closed its elementary school in the late 1980's. If Rome joined the district, Belgrade's share of the cost would decrease, as it, like Rome, has a lot of shorefront acreage.

Voters in Monticello (pop. 914) decided by an overwhelming majority to remain in SAD 29, following the results of a study that indicated it would cost the town more to pull out of the district than to stay in. The withdrawal debate began two years ago, when the district refused to restore two teaching positions at the local elementary school

Voters in Weld decided to do nothing when faced with an article that would have attempted to change the formula that apportions out the local share in SAD 9. Currently the local share is based on a member municipality's valuation; town

meeting was asked to approve an article that would have changed the formula to include the enrollment number of students. Because of its high valuation, Weld is currently paying $5,400 per pupil; the highest rate in the nine-member district. Arguing against changing the formula was the town's school board representative, indicating there was no chance such a proposal could gain sufficient district wide support.

AT ISSUE:

Members of school administrative districts are increasingly aware of their contributions toward the local share of the district's budget. While most shares are determined on the basis of the member's valuation, a small number include student enrollment in determining their local share. Last November, residents in SAD 17 (Harrison, Hebron, Norway, Otisfield, Oxford, Paris, Waterford and West Paris) voted to change their formula to include student enrollment. They decided that a 75/25 formula was a good start in working toward a more equitable formula; the new formula would be phased in over a period of five years.

At last count, 16 school administrative districts and 13 community school districts have cost sharing formulas that include student population as a factor in the formula along with valuation. They include SAD 17, 22, 30, 32, 40, 43, 50,57,60, 67, 68, 71, 72, 74, 75, and 77. Almost half have a 50-50 split.

TOWNSMAN RESOURCES

Over the years articles appearing in the TOWNSMAN have addressed many of the issues that town meeting wrestles with. Some of the more recent ones are as follows:

Assessing February, 1994.

Budgets October, 1992;January, 1993;January, 1995.

E-911/Dispatching October, 1996; March, 1995; December, 1993; April, 1991.

Elect or Appoint April, 1993; March, 1996.

Pay-by-The-Bag July, 1996.

Salaries January, 1997.

School Funding October,1993; April, 1996; July, 1996.