Town Meetings: No burning issues in the Spring of '96
(from Maine Townsman, April 1996)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

AUTHOR'S NOTE: As stated in previous year's summaries, any attempt to generalize about action taken at Maine's town meetings is difficult, if not dangerous. One tries every year, 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 action, there is probably an exception to it.

There didn't appear to be any burning issues firing up this year's spring spate of town meetings. Comprehensive plans have been adopted or not. Dumps have been closed or are on their way to be closed. And no one had any objections to adopting Enhanced 9-1-1 ordinances that would set in motion the naming and numbering of streets and roads in the name of public safety.

There didn't even appear to be a lot of slashing of budgets. In fact many a truck and grader and many an addition to a fire station was authorized. But that is not to say the spending was one of wild abandon, as many of those bucks had been saved over the years in special reserve accounts, so that the impact on property taxes would be minimal.

If anything, one might say the meetings were relatively quiet. Some might say that if anything the mood was one of caution. And control. That voters were not in favor of making major changes, especially when it came to the way local government was structured.

If you doubt it, ask those voters in Pittston and Sidney who said "no" to switching to the town manager plan or ask the voters in Limerick who voted down an attempt to switch from electing to appointing their town clerk.

But voters were willing to make changes if those changes enhanced their control over the budget, especially the school budget. Last year the tool was tax caps and secret ballot voting on the school budget; this year the tool was line-item school budgets.

That said, a closer look at these trends and others follows.

CHANGING STRUCTURE

Hiring Managers/Administrative Assistants

At last count there were 173 town managers. 18 city managers and 5 administrators in Maine. At last count there were 60 towns with administrative assistants.

While a handful of towns proposed switching to a town manager form of government, only Naples (pop. 3,025) took the final step. And then, it was a cautious one, appointing the current administrative assistant as the new manager, and keeping her at the same salary as before. Perhaps the biggest selling point for the switch was the fact that the administrative assistant was already carrying out all of the duties of a town manager.

Naples aside, they said "no" to a town manager in Pittston and Sidney. They already have an administrative assistant in Sidney. Proponents of switching to a manager form of government said it would increase professionalism; opponents said it would dilute local control. In Pittston, it was the second time they voted down the option in that many years, saying it was an expense they did not need and one they could not bear.

And while Andover voters said "no" to going to a town manager form of government, they didn't close the door to hiring an administrative assistant in the near future or to increasing the size of the board of selectmen. They established a committee to look into the two options.

That towns are cautious when it comes to relinquishing control is evident in the town of Greenwood (pop. 687), where last year they decide to switch to a town manager form of government by a vote of 45-27 and charged the selectmen with the task of hiring one. But then a petition was circulated and presented to reconsider last year's action. Petitioners argued the town meeting vote was not representative.

Meanwhile, the selectmen went ahead and hired a veteran administrative assistant from Massachusetts. But the hiring was contingent on this year's vote, which, after all was said and done, confirmed last year's vote and then some, with residents revolting and reconfirming their original vote 86-1. The new manager will earn $23,000 and will take over the duties that have been the responsibility of the town clerk.

But it wasn't only the town manager form of government that the wheels of change turn slowly on. The attitude also appears cautious when it comes to hiring administrative assistants. In Harpswell they voted down $30,000 proposed for hiring the town's first administrative assistant. A governance committee established by the selectman in response to complaints last year that the town had no long-term plan had recommended the new position. The selectmen reportedly were against it, saying it was a good idea whose time has yet to come. Voters agreed.

 Last year, town meetings in Trenton and Sebago voted to hire an administrative assistant. In Trenton they did so with the understanding that the position would include the duties of the clerk, treasurer, tax collector and registrar. In Sebago, they did so with the understanding that the selectmen would receive a cut in pay.

Switching to Appointed Officials

To appoint or elect the town clerk, tax collector, treasurer, road commissioner? The annual question. The see-saw question. Whether it is better to have continuity and control by the selectmen/manager or to leave it in the hands of the voters (see last month's "Point/Counterpoint ").

This year was no different. Many towns raised the question and unlike last year (see below) almost all of them said they would rather fight than switch to appointed positions.

Garland voted down the idea of appointing the town clerk and requiring the clerk to work in the town office instead of out of his/her home. Thorndike voters said no to appointing the town clerk and the road commissioner. Limerick voters said no to appointing the town clerk/tax collector and treasurer.

In Troy, voters said yes to appointing their road commissioner, breaking with the tradition of electing someone to the position. 

It was only in Chelsea that voters switch from electing the town clerk to having the clerk appointed. Perhaps because it has been so hard to find someone who would run for the seat. In 1994, when no one offered to run, the person who had previously held the position came out of retirement.

Last year the mood was in favor of appointing officials: Blue Hill, Searsmont, Chesterville, Warren and Hope went to appointed positions; only Union and Livermore Falls stayed with electing their clerk and treasurer.

Creating Charter Commissions

At last count (1992! there were 75 municipalities in Maine with charters and of those towns 24 percent were "pure" town meeting communities. while 17 percent had "limited " town meetings.

Only one town -Waterboro (pop. 4,888)-grappled with the idea of establishing a charter commission. After all was said and done, residents said "no" by a two to one margin. They even voted in a new selectman who ran opposed to the charter commission idea.

A committee appointed by the selectmen to study the organizational and fiscal status of the town to deter-mine how the town government should grow or change, had recommended that a charter commission be established. It had even suggested that while the town should keep the town meeting form of government, it should expand the board of select-men and give the board some administrative authority over key elected officials and hire a manager.

Proponents of establishing a charter commission said a charter would allow for slow carefully considered change. Opponents said it would remove people from the process and make it harder to change things.

Seceding from School Administrative Districts

In recent years there have been numerous threats of withdrawal from SADs, but since 1980 only four towns have actually severed their ties from a school district. Fayette was the most recent, withdrawing from SAD 36.

 

As is usual a number of towns toy with the idea. Few do it. Though they came close in fit. George where the majority voting said yes to withdrawing from SAD 50. It's just there were not enough affirmative votes to make up the needed 2/3 majority vote.

Opponents had argued the withdrawal would cost the town more money and could threaten the proposed addition to the St. George School. Proponents, who had worked on the withdrawal plan for almost two years, cited local control. The possibility of sixth through eighth graders from St. George being sent to Thomaston in a consolidation move had fueled the movement two years ago.

In Andover, residents approved spending $4,000 to do a cost analysis of withdrawing from SAD 44. Though no one reportedly spoke in favor of actually withdrawing, the sentiment at least appeared to be to look into the cost of doing so.

And in Wellington, voters, following town meeting, signed petitions to investigate the town's withdrawal from SAD 4. Since last year, as a cost-saving measure, SAD 4 officials have tried to close the town's one-room schoolhouse

But it wasn't all withdrawal. Residents in Bremen took a major step to-ward joining a consolidated school district with the towns of Damariscotta and Newcastle by voting to set aside $70,000 toward the buy-in cost.

CONTROLLING SPENDING

Wording of the Warrant

 

Perhaps the simplest, subtlest way to control spending is through the wording of the warrant. Voters in Farmington and Fort Kent are only too aware of that.

Back in 1993, Farmington selectmen changed the format of its questions, allowing voters only the power to reduce the request by including the amount in the body of the warrant itself. In effect, capping spending. Prior to 1993, the wording of the article merely asked . . . "to see what sum of money the town will vote to raise and appropriate . . ." followed by recommendations of the board of selectmen and the budget committee.

This year they switched back giving voters the power to raise as well as to lower the amount.

Last year, councilors in Fort Kent also changed the wording of the articles in the warrant limiting action to reducing spending only. According to news reports, near chaos ensued at the meeting, with residents voting no money for running the town. After the dust settled, a non-binding referendum got 58 percent of the voters to go along with the "cap" idea this year, reports Fort Kent Town Manager Donald Guimond.

Line-item School Budget

In Windsor, they approved adopting a line-item school budget format by a vote of 119 - 86. A member of School Union 51, Windsor runs its own elementary school K-8 and tuitions its students to a number of neighboring high schools. They did the same in Somerville, also a member of School Union 51, but by a narrower vote of 21 - 20. Both formats will allow for transfers between lines of up to four percent.

Windsor and Somerville aside, it is not currently known how many school entities have adopted the line-item school budget (a survey in 1991 of 166 school units by the Maine School Management Association found 50 to be voting on line-item budgets). But the number would appear to be increasing and the MSMA currently is in the process of conducting another survey. (For further information on line-item budgets, turn to page 11 in this issue of the TOWNSMAN.)

Tax/Spending Caps

Whitefield: After approving a tax cap for the past three years, residents of Whitefield said no to a fourth year, with 211 votes in favor of the cap and 321 votes against it.

Passage of the tax cap in Whitefield in 1993 by a vote of 189 to 120, freezing taxes at the previous year's level, had been triggered by a decrease in state subsidy for education. The following year the cap was retained by a vote of 272 to 249. Last year, voters allowed for a five percent increase in taxes over the 1992 rate which by then had been in effect for three years.

This year they lifted the cap altogether and taxes are expected to rise from 12.75 mils to 15.75 mile, meaning that a homeowner with a valuation of $80,000 will see a $240 tax increase.

Opponents of the tax cap had argued that rising school costs go beyond the control of the local community, and that the elementary school which had lost all of its experienced teachers couldn't withstand another cap; that the students should not become casualties in the ongoing battle between state and local government over school funding and mandates.

Other Municipalities: While the number of towns flirting with tax caps and approving tax caps or spending caps has waxed and waned over the years, currently only Lewiston (council imposed) and Bath (by referendum) cap their spending pegging it to the CPI.

Last year, Winthrop flirted with the idea of a tax cap that would have demanded that the local share of the school and municipal budget be capped at the previous level of spending. Voters narrowly rejected the idea.

Ditto in Lamoine, where last year a vote of 223 to 126 rejected a proposed budget cap which would have limited both the municipal and school budgets to a three percent increase through 1998. Opponents of the cap had argued that the place to act on the school budget was at town meeting.

Corporate Imposed Caps: It should be noted that in recent years, three towns have put tax caps in place not because of pressure from citizens, but rather from their corporate taxpayers. Both Millinocket and East Millinocket settled a tax dispute with Great Northern Paper Co. by agreeing to reduce their tax commitment over a period of four years. This is the second year of the agreements.

Most recently, the town of Madawaska agreed to hold the line for the next two years, freezing the tax rate, as a result of a tax dispute with its largest taxpayer, Fraser Paper Ltd.

Solid Waste User Fees

According to statistics provided by the Maine State Planning Office as of April 1995. 45 Maine municipalities have so-called "fee-incentive" solid waste programs in place.

A recent study of 29 towns with pay-by-the-bag systems (released July 1995! and 28 towns which pay for garbage disposal by conventional methods and flat fees found that:

The study was conducted by the University of Maine and funded by the Maine Waste Management Agency.

In Pownal, residents overwhelmingly decided to adopt their first pay-per-bag trash disposal program; albeit a lenient one with four free tags a week and $2 per tag beyond that. The action was a reaction to a reported $25 increase in tipping fees at Regional Waste Systems of which the town is a member. Last year, Pownal reportedly paid approximately $37,000 for waste disposal through RWS; this year it is expected to pay almost $45,000.

In Durham, they voted to raise the user fee on their trash tags from $2 to $3 and reduced the number of free trash tags from 52 to 26 a year. Durham is perhaps a model in this arena. Back in 1993, it gave one free bag per week and charged $1 for every additional bag; then in 1994, town meeting decided to up the fee to $2 per bag. At that time, the increase was reported to have the potential of saving $80,000 a year in disposal costs.

Change is slower in Thorndike, where this year they tried to do away with the free bag it had been giving (additional bags were $1) and charge $1 dollar per trash tag, period. Voters decided to stick with what they had: 52 free bags a year and $1 per bag beyond that.

Only in Bristol, did they reject the idea of a fee-per-bag approach. They said no by a vote of 480 to 274 to implementing a $1 fee per bag pro-gram to deal with the rising cost of solid waste disposal. They also did away with their 4 cents per pound waste wood fee.

Selectmen say they believe they did a less than good job explaining the proposal and say they will try again next year, arguing that the user-fee tax mix could have reduced individual household contributions to the solid waste budget by 50 percent.

Cutting Social Services from the Municipal Budget

To fund or not to fund social services and other non-profit groups through the property tax appears to be an annual debate. This year was no different. Though the ayes seemed to be in fashion.

Perhaps the clearest statement of the dilemma was made in Lamoine.

Initially the selectmen had decided to exclude funding for such agencies from the warrant, arguing that charitable donation should be up to the individual, and recommending that the town help out by including a note in the tax bills advocating individual contributions to agencies seeking support from the town.

But a citizen's petition had put the question as to whether or not such requests should be entertained by the town meeting to a secret ballot vote the day before town meeting. By a vote of 272 to 249, voters said the requests should go to the town meeting. When the dust settled, all of the 13 agencies got what they requested: almost $4,000 worth of tax money.

It should be noted that when the Lamoine selectmen made their initial decision, they kept two requests on the warrant: one from the Ellsworth Library and one from the YMCA. The selectmen argued that unlike the other requests, the two organizations provided services to all of Lamoine's taxpayers, and, that as such, their monies were in the context of contractual agreements and not contributions.

Also showing municipal support for social service agencies were Farmington voters. Two years ago, selectmen had set forth on a plan to eliminate all social service funding within four years, arguing that the requests should be funneled through the Franklin County Commissioners. This year residents nixed the plan and voted to give support to all agencies that provide help to Farmington residents. 

And in Strong, where a number of agencies had not submitted the pre-requisite petitions signed by residents along with their requests, residents approved all requests, totaling almost $11,000 including a $6,000 request from the local health clinic, which had not submitted a petition. Since the meeting, officials say they have abandoned the petition prerequisite.