Town Meetings: A lot of fine-tuning occurred at town meetings this spring as voters looked for ways to deal with increasingly complex and costly issues
(from Maine Townsman, April 1994)
by Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

AUTHOR'S NOTE: As noted in previous year's summaries any attempt to generalize about action taken at Maine's town meetings is difficult, if not dangerous. One 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.

Reshaping. Honing. Fine-tuning. Whatever you call it, there seemed to be a lot of it going on at town meeting this year, as residents tried to keep up with a world that was growing more complex and costly every year.

More than a few debated switching to a town manager form of government. An equal number debated expanding the size of the board of selectmen to spread the work load around. More than a few debated increasing the length of the selectmen's terms so they could gain more experience. A few decided to hire professional assessors. More than a few admitted it was time to get help with the tax bills and purchased a computer.

There was also a lot of fine-tuning when it came to the disposal of trash. From mandatory recycling to the licensing of trash collectors to the adoption of user fees to the purchase of a so-called "travelling transfer station" (a.k.a. garbage truck), solid waste disposal continued to be the main topic of debate in many a town, as it has been ever since the state decided to close down the landfills.

RESHAPING GOVERNMENT

Perhaps the most notable small town to take steps to reshape the it does business was the town of Knox (pop. 681). Selectmen decided not to replace the tax collector/treasurer who had decided not to run for reelection, just yet, saying "We can no longer live with operating out of people's homes. They promised to hold a special town meeting in a few months to address the issue of creating a town office and appointing someone to fill what would then become a full-time position.

The most notable mid-size town to reshape the way it does things was Phippsburg (pop. 1,815). Not only did it switch the town budget from a calendar to a July-June fiscal year, it established a procedure for impeaching elected town officials; it created a budget committee; residents approved the creation of a board of appeals as well as a seven-member solid waste committee. Phippsburg also agreed to hire a professional to assess property and as such voted to reduce the selectmen's salaries by $2,000.

Not every town was as broad in its actions as Phippsburg. Most focused their fine-tuning, as the following summary shows.

Board of Selectmen: Recall

In Starks, they took advantage of a recent change in state statutes that allows non-charter communities to recall an elected official. They adopted an ordinance that says "three times and you are out." In the future if a selectman misses three consecutive meetings in Starks, his or her seat will be declared vacant. Starks may be the first non-charter community to take advantage of this statutory change.

Board of Selectmen: Terms

Longer terms and limited terms for the board of selectmen were the subject of hot debate at a number of March town meetings. Notable in this arena was Skowhegan, where last year they voted to restrict the selectmen to three one-year terms. This year, they changed their minds voting to allow selectmen to serve an unlimited number of three year terms.

They also opted to go with longer terms in Manchester, upping the length of the term served by the selectmen from one to three years.

Three-year terms held the line in New Vineyard where an article calling for a one-year term for the board of selectmen was defeated. Proponents of the one-year term said more people would run if faced with only serving for one-year; opponents said it takes at least a year to get your feet wet and only then can things be done.

But not everyone was in favor of expanded terms. Voters in St.Albans, when faced with increasing the length of the term that selectmen serve from one year to three, said "no", despite the arguments of proponents that a three-year term would ensure a stable board of selectmen and keep candidates from having to circulate papers every year.

And, they said "no" to longer terms in Farmington; but the vote was a muddy one. The vote to extend the length of the term to three years never made it to the floor of town meeting. An early morning secret ballot to see if the town would vote on the question was defeated by a vote of 27-7.

Board of Selectmen: Size

The size of the board of selectmen was another widely discussed issue this year. Belgrade voters said "yes" to increasing the size of their board of selectmen to five; they did the same in Damariscotta. Like other towns with five-member boards, Belgrade has a manager; Damariscotta has an administrative assistant.

And while Anson residents had already voted at a special town meeting back in November to expand their board to five; they used the March meeting to vote in a whole new board at town meeting. Union had also voted earlier at a special town meeting to increase to a five-member board and used the March meeting to fill the two new slots.

But they said "no" to expanding the board in Monroe, pointing out it was hard enough to get nominations for the three-person board.

Form of Government

Approximately half of Maine's municipalities have some form of professional administration, be it an administrative assistant or a manager.

While no towns adopted the town manager form of government in March, one town reaffirmed its committment last year to do so. The residents of Clifton (pop. 607), faced with a petition article to rescind last year's vote to adopt the town manager plan, resoundingly voted to "pass over" the article by a vote of 39-10.

It was a good thing. A newly hired manager was waiting in the wings ready to start work. The town had renovated an office for the new manager. It had also done away with the position of town clerk, tax collector, registrar of voters and general assistance administrator and combined the duties with that of the manager.

Union residents had also voted to switch to the town manager form of government earlier and used the March meeting to raise money to pay for a new manager. They will now begin a search.

Also noteworthy was the town of Manchester where they voted to hire a first-ever, full-time administrative assistant.

A number of towns wrestled with switching to a town manager form of government or hiring an administrative assistant and either put it off or said "no".

In Benton, they agreed to look into the "possibility" of changing to a town manager form of government. Proponents argued that a town that handles $2.5 million annually can't afford not to have a full-time professional administrator. They also voted to look into the possibility in Greenwood.

In Mercer, a proposal to "look into" hiring a town manager or administrative assistant was defeated by a vote of 29-27. According to the newspaper reports, the town is experiencing a lack of candidates for the board of selectmen, partly because the jobs are becoming more demanding and time consuming. When asked how many hours they put in, Second Selectman Christopher Holt was reported to have answered: "It's like asking how many hours you put in as a parent."

First Selectman Dennis Culley, however, is reported to have opposed the article saying the town could operate without professional assistance if it could draw from a pool of volunteers who would rotate the job.

In Avon, they amended an article to hire an administrative assistant to form a committee to investigate the possibility of hiring one.

Board of Assessors

More and more towns are finding that a board of selectmen can no longer do the job of assessing. They are either getting some help and hiring an assessor's agent or getting out of the business altogether by hiring a single certified assessor.

Phippsburg was the only town to decide to hire a professional assessor at the March meeting (in Troy they debated and defeated a proposed plan to appoint a single assessor), all the others voted to "keep their finger on the trigger," and hire an agent or an assistant.

In Pittston, they voted to spend $10,000 to hire an Assessors' "agent" to keep the town's recent revaluation up to date. In Vienna, they approved a sum of $2,000 to hire what they called a "deputy assessor". In Greene, they authorized the spending of $350 to hire an assistant to the assessors.

Tax Collector

In Manchester, they put their tax collector on salary, replacing the d present payment system of 1.5 percent of property taxes collected, saying to remain with the current system - would be too costly for the town. Last year the tax collector reportedly received $31,000, a figure residents said could increase as tax collections rise.

Road Commissioner

The continual seesaw over appointed vs. elected road commissioner was in full swing at town meeting this year.

In Phillips, a proposal to go back to electing rather than appointing the road commissioner was defeated. Opponents said electing the commissioner resulted in a turnover that wastes time and money spent in training and less accountability; they also argued selectmen could not fire an elected road commissioner.

They did the reverse in Smithfield, voting against a proposed switch to appointing the road commissioner even though no one reportedly runs for the office, saying appointing the road commissioner would take another right away from the voters.

In New Vineyard, residents took a major step and voted to create the position of road commissioner, to be filled by election.

In Acton, residents rejected a proposal to appoint one road commissioner rather than elect two— one from the northern part of town and one from the southern—as is the current practice, saying people liked to choose their own.

At least two towns upped the terms of their road commissioner: in Nobleboro, they went from one to two years; in Jefferson, they went from one to three years.

Office Equipment

At least ten towns were reported to have approved monies for computers. The amounts appropriated ranged from as little as $2,500 in Gilead, to $3,500 in Pittston, to $9,000 in Frankfort, and to a high of $20,000 in Limerick.

It was a close go in Detroit, however, where the article to spend $6,500 to purchase a computer system sparked much debate and squeaked by with a vote of 25-23. The selectmen had reportedly discussed the issue for three years; those opposing it questioned whether a town of 760 people needed a computer. A new computer was approved in Sorrento (pop. 295). In Vienna, it wasn't a new system; rather it was an upgrade, approving $2,000 to hire a consultant to install a new user-friendly system.

RESHAPING GARBAGE DISPOSAL

It's an ever-changing scenario when it comes to garbage disposal as towns close down their landfills and seek out alternative options. The search for the best way, the best price continued at an increasing pace this year.

Faced with the April deadline of closing its landfill, Montville (pop. 877) voters not only took $35,000 from surplus to close and cover their landfill (about half the expected cost with the state picking up the other half), they also decided to purchase their own garbage truck and to hire their own driver, again with surplus monies ($34,000).

Montville's citizens figured the truck had a capacity of about two weeks worth of rubbish and as such could serve as a "roving transfer station." As selectman Bill Terry said, "The issue is fairly simple in that it all has to go to PERC, but the options to get it there all have good and bad points; buying the truck is the most flexible; it gives us the most options." In deciding to purchase the truck, residents also agreed to a $l a bag fee to offset the tipping fee and to encourage recycling.

Garbage trucks aside, the basic question addressed at many towns this March was how to best pay for trash disposal.

User Fees

In Mercer,residents approved a solid waste ordinance requiring them to purchase 33 gallon bags embossed with the town seal for $1 a bag and to leave their trash at the newly constructed transfer station. The action, caused First Selectman Dennis Culley to say, "In my house we are going to have to ask permission to put something in a bag."

Like Mercer, residents in Cambridge also agreed to place a per bag fee on trash dropped off at the town's new transfer station but left it to the planning board to determine the fee per bag. Currently the town recycles 45 percent of its trash; but officials said the cost of disposing of the 55 percent remains high and should be born by those who do not recycle.

In Durham, they fine-tuned their existing pay-per-bag fee. Under the old system residents were given one free bag per week and charged $1 for every additional bag; under the new system adopted at the town meeting, it will cost $2 per-bag. The increase is reportedly saving the town more than $80,000.

In Knox, they also fine-tuned the price per bag. Last year the town charged $2 per bag after the first two $1 bags; this year they decided to charge $1 per bag regardless of the number of bags put out.

MANAGING MONEY

There were a variety of actions taken when it came to managing the town's money; some was fine-tuning, like eliminating discounts for early payment of taxes; some was not fine-tuning like the imposition of a tax cap or the issuing of a municipal bond.

Imposing Tax Caps

Tax caps are a cyclical event in local government. This year it was Whitefield that made the news with a vote of 272-249 to impose a tax cap on school and municipal spending, freezing spending at last year's level. It wasn't the first time that Whitefield residents have passed a tax cap; they did so last year, but with reportedly little repercussion.

But this year, because of a decrease in state funding and a decrease in available surplus, school officials say the tax cap will require them to cut as many as half the teachers in the elementary school.

Dipping into Surplus

There is always a tendency at town meetings to "raid" surplus. Some view it as a savings account, other view it as an operating cushion. The rule of thumb, say the veterans, is to make sure you have at least on month's operating expenses in the account.

That said, it is noted that this year. Kennebunkport dipped into "undesignated fund account" to the tune of $607,000 to lessen the tax burden. The account, described by the manager as a savings account that the town can draw upon to stabilize taxes is currently estimated to contain $2 million and consists of monies from unanticipated revenues.

Sidney also reported its large surplus in history. With a budget $894,000, it only had to raise $168,000 in taxes because of that surplus.

But not everyone with hefty surplus dipped in. Residents of Shapleigh, where the budget item rose ten percent more to $800,000 declined to dip into surplus even though it stood at $600,000, saying they should rely instead on taxation.

Peru residents dipped into surplus but took out less than had been suggested. They amended an article that requested $80,000 to $60,000, after looking at a graph showing that the surplus account had eroded from $207,000 in 1991 to $113,000 in 1993. The finance committee chairman noted that surplus was hard to rebuild and dipping in to the tune of $80,000 this year would just about deplete the account.

Eliminating/Reducing Discounts

Some officials believe that discounts for early payment of taxes are too costly and favor those who don't need the discount. The voters in Nobleboro agreed with that viewpoint this year, voting to do away with the practice, after noting that last year the town spent $10,000 on discounts.

But not so in New Sharon. Faced with a proposal to cut the discount from five percent to two percent and save an estimated $9,000, voters in New Sharon said, thanks but no thanks.

Passing Bond Issues

Woolwich voters also said thanks but no thanks, when it came to issuing $265,000 in bonds to pay for renovating their school. As one resident was reported to have commented Woolwich was a "pay-as-you-go-town" and that it should set aside so much money each year and do what it can this year.

But voters in those towns that are members of the Mid Maine Waste Action Corp. (MMWAC), which owns and operates a waste-to-energy plan in Auburn, had no alternative but to approve a bond issue to help pay off a $43 million bond debt owed to a Japanese bank that was financing the plant.

Among the towns that sought approval at March town meeting of general obligation bonds to cover the debt were New Gloucester, Sumner and Buckfield. For their share, voters in Buckfield agreed to borrow $1.4 million; New Gloucester voters agreed to borrow $2.2 million.

Dealing with Audits

Audits were the focus of a lot of discussion in many small towns this year, especially in Grand Isle, where the town voted to adjourn the town meeting after acting on eight of the 44 articles in the warrant, after realizing that the audit was not available. It's lateness was blamed on the fact that the selectmen had solicited bids for a new auditor and that the selection process had taken longer than expected.

In Canaan, voters said spend as much as $25,000 for a three-year audit of the books. They did so following the admission of the town's treasurer that the books contained errors.

In an act of rebellion voters in Starks said they had trouble reading and understanding their audit report, so when they approved another $2,000 for a town audit, they stipulated that a different auditor do the report.

They were also rebellious in Thorndike. but it had to do with reimbursing the state for an audit of its books. The audit was requested by town officials after some residents circulated a petition asking for an audit. Opponents said the people who requested the audit should pay for it; they also noted there were still unanswered questions regarding the audit. Residents voted 87-13 not to pay the state's bill of $3,574.

PASSING ORDINANCES

More than a few town meetings grappled with zoning ordinances this year; they were the towns that had passed comprehensive plans a few years back; the so-called Tier 1 and Tier 2 towns. According to the statutes MRSA 30-A 4314, they have until July 1994 to pass a zoning ordinance that is consistent with the plan. Other towns have until 1998 or 2003 to adopt ordinances consistent with a comprehensive plan

Reports indicate that the going was rough in a number of towns as in Unity where residents rejected a land use ordinance that reportedly had taken the members of the comprehensive planning committee two years to develop. The vote was 63-52 with one opponent saying "Big Brother was encroaching on our individual rights."

But Unity was not alone in rejecting its ordinance. Voters in Waterford also turned down a proposed land use and development ordinance by a vote of 64-51 despite the arguments it would protect the town's rural character yet retain the rights of landowners.

Residents in Naples also saw the zoning ordinance that had been worked on for two years voted down by secret ballot, 70-55. It was the second time the ordinance had gone down to defeat. According to reports last year the town felt it was too restrictive; this year they felt it was too lenient, with some saying the commercial district was too large and would encourage strip development.

But all was not defeat. Voters in Harpswell reportedly took the first step in implementing the comprehensive plan they adopted last year, passing an ordinance that creates a system for issuing building permits.

Clam Digging Ordinances

Westport voters overwhelmingly passed a shellfish conservation ordinance, ending their status as the only town in the area without a law in place to regulate clamming. In doing so they became the only town in midcoast Maine to forbid commercial harvesting of their flats.

Friendship voters adopted an amendment to their clamming ordinance that grandfathered town shellfish licenses for diggers who perform 10 hours of conservation work; it also required clammers to live in town for a year. But passage was not without discussion. Proponents said the amendment was an incentive for clammers to help out; opponents said it smacked of special privilege for some.

Sludge Spreading Ordinances

Voters in Limerick took some drastic action regarding sludge spreading in their community, passing by a vote of 270-160 an ordinance that requires those who wish to spread sewage sludge onto their fields to file papers 90 days in advance and pay a $500 fee. In passing its ordinance, Limerick voters join a number of other communities, including New Gloucester, that have passed sludge spreading ordinances. To date, no one has answered the question, "Can towns enact their own sludge spreading ordinances?" Which is to say, to date none of the ordinances passed have been tested in the courts.

Mining Ordinance

Union was notable for passing a 100-page mining ordinance that was two years in the making by a committee of elected members. The approval ended a mining moratorium that voters enacted in 1992 and that selectmen have extended in consecutive month blocks since it first expired.

WORKING TOGETHER

While towns across the state have banded together in recent years in variety of networks to deal with disposal of solid waste, probably none have banded together to uphold ban on ice fishing on a lake they have border on, as they did in Ripley at this year's March meeting when they voted to join their neighbor, the town, of Dexter in banning trucks and cars during ice-fishing season on Big Lake Wassookeag.

The vote was seen as a neighborly gesture to Dexter which uses the lake as a source of community drinking-water. Dexter residents passed a similar ordinance last year but could not enforce it without Ripley's help. A small portion of the lake is in Ripley.