Town Meeting Roundup

(from Maine Townsman, April 2008)
By
Liz Chapman Mockler, Freelance Writer

Faced with municipal budgets that were being driven higher by fuel costs and flat or declining state revenues, residents at the March town meetings scrutinized the selectmen’s spending requests and made their decisions based on their perceived need for local services and what their wallets could afford.

Much of the increased spending at this year’s town meetings was targeted to road improvements and the rising cost of doing day-to-day business in local government.

Some residents were more tight-fisted, insisting on budget cuts, big and small. However, many of the selectmen’s proposed municipal budgets this spring, according to newspaper coverage, did not exceed the LD 1 spending limitation law; therefore no override vote was necessary.   The LD 1 law, enacted in 2005, requires municipal officials to calculate a municipal spending limit for each year’s budget.  That spending limit can only be exceeded if the town legislative body (town meeting or council) uses a special voting procedure to override the limit.  From  newspaper reports, it appears that many of the town meetings, though not all, that were presented with an override article agreed that it was necessary and voted for the town to go over the limit.

Road improvement and new fire equipment were among the top issues on many town meeting warrants this spring, an echo of last year’s themes. For example, voters in Norridgewock agreed to continue raising $250,000 a year for road reconstruction in a partnership with Waste Management, which operates one of Maine’s largest commercial recycling and solid waste facilities in Norridgewock. Under the agreement, now in its sixth year, Waste Management also will contribute $250,000 for capital road repair, according to Town Manager John Doucette.

In Andover, meanwhile, with a population just over 800, residents voted to raise $100,000 and accept a federal grant of $237,000 for a new pumper truck.

Voters were tighter with their tax dollars in places such as Greenwood, where they reduced the proposed budget by eliminating reserves, among other cuts. Meanwhile, other towns took money from their fund balance to keep taxes stable or to preserve existing services.

In particular, many town officials across the state have recommended higher operational budgets for road maintenance in the coming year and voters, overall, did not argue with them.

The record-setting snowfall Maine experienced this past winter was particularly hard on rural small towns, although even larger municipalities ran low on the basics, such as salt and overtime funding.

Record fuel prices only made the situation worse and most new budgets approved in March reflected the impact of the high gas and diesel prices on a number of municipal services, from paving to trash pickup to police patrols.

For example, voters in Knox increased road maintenance by $20,000, to $82,000, after the town was forced to hold a special town meeting in February to take money from surplus to cover a large operational deficit.

Fire equipment and new trucks were other perennial town meeting issues this year. However, in a few small towns in Maine, voters were glad to accept large federal Homeland Security grants that will pay most of the cost of expensive new fire trucks.

In non-financial trends, voters in Maine’s small towns continued to want control over municipal positions such as road commissioner and town clerk by rejecting proposals to allow selectmen to appoint the staff.

Some towns agreed to hire an assessor in the coming year, for the first time, recognizing the workload of  the small-town selectmen and the sensitivity of the public to property values and revaluations. Other communities supported hiring their first administrative assistant to help with the increasingly-complex issues facing local government.

Spending

In many towns, voters approved special one-time budget requests, such as in Belgrade, where they agreed to spend up to $20,000 to study their options for building a new municipal center.

In Hartland, residents voted to raise $53,000 for a new outdoor pool and still kept spending below last year’s level

Farmingdale voters, meanwhile, put up $100,000 toward the cost of a new fire station or combination fire station/town office, while voters in tiny Moscow approved a $5,000 contribution to help bail out the water district.

In Thorndike, a plan for a new town office was shelved for the new fiscal year out of two main concerns: jitters about the economy and questions about the size of the new office.

In new, ongoing spending changes, town meeting goers in Washington, population 1,440, decided to fund their own public works department, agreeing to raise $350,000 for a new town garage, three used trucks with wings and plows, and a new dump truck. Farmington voters extended health insurance coverage to the library staff, at a cost of $18,000 for the first year. Newport voters agreed to upgrade a fire department job to full-time because fewer people are volunteering to help at the station.

In Searsmont, voters agreed to hire a professional property assessor for the first time, who will work two days a week. Mercer residents agreed to pay $25,000 to heat and maintain the town’s elementary school once the town takes ownership later this year, and Minot voters, over the recommendation of the town budget committee, raised $15,000 so that all residents can have free access to the Auburn Public Library.

Other Business

Unlike last spring, there were few communities in March considering whether to change their form of government, particularly from an open town meeting format to secret balloting. In Canton, near Rumford, voters rejected a proposal to require referendum balloting for any spending item over $5,000.

In several small towns, voters retained control over town staff, refusing to give up their right to elect the road commissioner, treasurer, clerk and others, including Burnham and Brighton Plantation.

Some Maine towns took ground-breaking action at their town meetings last month, while others approved spending items but not the money to fund them. They included:

• The town of Cranberry Isles, comprised of five small islands off Mount Desert Island, authorized selectmen to sign the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and to spend up to $10,000 to promote studies on local renewable energy, conservation and other “green” projects.

• The town of Montville, population about 1,100, voted to ban genetically-engineered food, reportedly the first community outside the state of California to pass a local ordinance to prohibit changing an organism’s DNA to create a new varieties. Farmers will have two years to phase out the practice.

• Jefferson voters approved all 37 warrant articles, but declined to override the LD 1 limit by a vote of 130-116, therefore failing to fund what they had approved.

Three major spending items are now in question: $96,000 for a road project; $8,000 for the town office septic system; and $1,800 for supplemental fire and rescue insurance.

The selectmen were expected to take up the issue when they met for the first time after the April 1 secret-ballot town meeting.

Lynne Bond, administrative assistant to the selectmen, said she thinks some voters do not understand that without overriding the LD 1 limit, the budget they approved cannot be funded.

“I don’t really know if they understand that we have not been raising taxes on the municipal side (of the budget) in order to stay within LD 1, however, they have raised taxes for schools for the past three years.

“So no, I don’t think they understand,” she said.