Plenty of Local Referenda in November

(from Maine Townsman, November 2009)
By Michael Starn, Editor

Statewide issues clearly dominated the November 3 off-year election here in Maine; nevertheless, local ballot issues were plentiful and sometimes contentious in their own right for many communities. Local voters deciding local issues is a longstanding Maine and New England tradition that was not lost in the election of 2009.

Most political observers attribute this year’s high voter turnout to the heavily advertised and debated statewide ballot issues. An off-year election turnout typically falls in the 20-50% range, depending in large part on how controversial the issues are. This year’s voter turnout was 60%. For some communities, local issues were clearly a factor affecting the large voter turnout.

The economy was undoubtedly on local voters’ minds as they entered the polling places. Local referenda questions that involved local tax expenditures were particularly scrutinized. From post-election newspaper reports, it appeared that fewer of these tax expenditure questions made their way to the local ballot this year than would ordinarily have been expected in a November election. Where they did show up, communities seemed split between those who approved these measures and those who rejected them.

For some reason, charter changes were bountiful at this year’s election. About a dozen communities voted on charter amendments and at least two decided to form a charter commission. The Town of Winslow left all the charter-changing communities in the dust with 29 separate charter amendments on the ballot. The long list of amendments may have caused “voter fatigue” for some Winslow residents as Town Clerk Pam Smiley observed in a post-election newspaper article that she believed that some voters may have failed to complete the entire local ballot.

School bonds were also on several local ballots. Perhaps associated with recent school consolidations, voting on school building construction and improvements was fairly widespread. Conversely, voters in at least one new school district were faced with closing two elementary schools.

Growth management, zoning and other land use issues, and public land acquisition were also on this year’s ballot, but mostly in southern Maine and coastal communities. Downtown development projects were approved in a couple of communities.

And, finally, bucking longstanding restrictions on the sale of beer and wine in their communities, voters in Friendship and Morrill decided the time had come to switch from a “dry” to a “wet” community.

BUILDING PROJECTS

Old Orchard Beach and Farmington voted on new police stations, but saw different results.

Residents in OOB approved a $2.5 million police station building project by a 2,376 to 1,503 vote. With a local police department that swells from a dozen or so officers in the winter to nearly 60 full and part-time law enforcement personnel in the summer, the current 3,000 sq. ft. police facility was clearly inadequate.

Before deciding to put the construction project before voters, the OOB town council had to find a creative way to finance it – one that wouldn’t involve property tax increases. What they found was a $250,000-$350,000 of annual rescue billing funds that could be dedicated to the bond payments.

With some town-owned land behind the existing police/fire station, a clear need for a larger police facility, and a non-property tax funding mechanism identified, the town council felt the timing was right to ask residents for their approval to move forward with the project.

Construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2010 on the 9,000 sq. ft. police station and town officials hope to start using the new facility before the end of next year. The project addresses another space issue in that the current public safety building is shared by the police and fire departments. When the police department moves into the new building, space in the old building will be freed up for just fire department use.

Voters in Farmington did not share OOB’s enthusiasm for a new police station. By a 1,507-1,634 vote, Farmington residents rejected a $2.75 million, 9,000 sq. ft. police station project on a parcel of town-owned land located on Route 2.

The 14-member police department currently works out of slightly-less-than 1,600 sq. ft. of space in the Municipal Building. Studies over the past 10 years have concluded that more space is needed. A Space Needs Committee was formed by the town last year to study the situation.

In a newspaper interview following the election, Town Manager Richard Davis said the board of selectmen would discuss what steps to take next at its meeting on November 10.

Elsewhere, municipal officials were clearly apprehensive about putting town building projects before voters this year given the current economic climate. In Bridgton and Ogunquit, “advisory” voting kept alive proposals to renovate or build new municipal offices, without committing actual dollars to projects.

Bridgton residents showed overwhelming support for a non-binding ballot question that asked them if they wanted to renovate the Old Town Hall building. The vote was 1,567-547. The renovation project is expected to cost about $400,000 and with the recent public support for the project, town officials are expected to go before voters next June with a specific bond proposal.

A conceptual plan for a new municipal complex put forward by a Building Needs Committee got voter approval in Ogunquit, 495-218. The plan involves renovations to the Dunaway Center and Ogunquit Village School. Voters were asked only for their opinion on the design of the project. No funding was approved, although the project is estimated to cost about $4.1 million.

INFRASTRUCTURE IMPROVEMENTS

The number of infrastructure projects presented to voters in November for financing was smaller than usual, as well.

In Rockland, voters gave the city council authority to borrow up to $2.8 million for various capital improvement projects. Most of the funding will be spent on replacing deteriorated, old sewer lines along several in-town streets. City officials are hoping to get some funding from USDA Rural Development for part of the sewer work.

Town officials in Mexico were successful in making the case to voters for borrowing up to $2.9 million for road projects. The vote was 605-485.

The road bond will be used for reconstruction, paving, and repair work on about a dozen local roads that haven’t gotten much attention over the past several years. Town Manager John Madigan expressed his view of voters support for roads after the election by saying, “This shows that the majority of voters want to reinvest in the future of the town.”

Madigan attributes the public support that he and selectmen got for the road bond question to their preparedness to explain details of the plan. When the idea first surfaced, Madigan contacted his fellow town managers via the MTMCA (Maine Town & City Management Association) listserv asking for experiences with road bonds. He says that the feedback he got from other managers was very helpful in selling the idea to Mexico residents.

Kennebunk and Rockport voters approved capital improvement bonds for their downtowns. In Kennebunk, the vote was 2,896-2,250 authorizing the town to borrow for sidewalk, sign, tree, crosswalk and drainage improvements. In Rockport, the vote was 947-672 to establish a downtown tax increment financing (TIF) district. The purpose of the TIF district would be to leverage private investment in the downtown and to dedicate the property tax revenue generated by that investment toward infrastructure improvements and public facilities in the downtown.

Lisbon voters approved two bond issues: a $320,000 10-year bond as local matching funds to receive $1.2 million of state funds to complete the final phase of the Lisbon Trail System; and a $1.7 million bond to construct new water lines along Route 9.

On the flip side of infrastructure spending, residents of Dover-Foxcroft rejected a $300,000 capital improvement bond to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant and collection system. The local funds would have been a match for a $708,000 USDA Rural Development grant.

SCHOOL BONDS

On the education side of things, building project voting was more widespread, and some of that may have been created by ‘no-interest’ loans under the federal stimulus act. School consolidation may also have been a factor as school facilities were inventoried and analyzed prior to consolidation voting over the past two years.

Residents in Bridgton, Casco, Naples and Sebago, comprising SAD 61, approved a $13.8 million bond for major renovations to the Lakes Region High School. All four towns voted affirmatively on the school bond.

According to Bridgton Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz, school officials did a good job of explaining the need for the renovations in several public hearings and also took advantage of state and federal revenues that helped to minimize the impact on local property taxpayers. In Bridgton, Berkowitz says the increase will only be 10 cents on the property tax rate.

Strong local leadership and support for a major high school renovation project in Biddeford was at least partly responsible for a surprisingly easy approval of a $34 million school bond (4,573-2,686). According to City Manager John Bubier, the mayor (Joanne Twomey) announced her support early in the process for the school bond and clearly “deserves some of the credit” for its success at the polls. Except for one councilor, the city council also backed the school project.

Even though the need for the renovations was obvious, city and school officials had to be a little worried about a school bond of this magnitude going before voters in the current economy, compounded by the fact that it will be entirely locally funded. City Manager Bubier acknowledges that “it was a tough year to be doing this type of thing”. “We were very pleased to see it go through,” he said.

Smaller school bonds in RSU 35 (Eliot, South Berwick) and RSU 60 (Lebanon, Berwick, North Berwick) were also approved by comfortable margins. The RSU 35 project was for $3.2 million and the RSU 60 vote was for $571,550 of building improvements.

Voters in RSU 44, which includes Bethel, Newry, Greenwood, Andover and Woodstock, turned down a school bond for a new gymnasium and theater at the Telstar Middle/High School complex.

While voters in SAD 4, which includes Abbot, Cambridge, Guilford, Parkman, Sangerville and Wellington, were approving $600,000 of borrowing to install a new roof and make other renovations to the Piscataquis Community High School, they also were voting to close two elementary schools, effective June 30, 2010. When these closings take effect, the only elementary school in the district will be on the campus of the Piscataquis Community Middle School.

MUNICIPAL CHARTERS

Municipalities seemed particularly interested in charter changes at the November election. At least nine communities had charter amendments that were voted on and two approved the formation of a charter commission.

On November 3, Old Orchard Beach and Mechanic Falls both established charter commissions and elected people to serve on those commissions.

Some of the communities voting on charter amendments had several questions on the ballot, led by the Town of Winslow with 29 separate amendments. Because of the size of the ballot and some necessary hand-counting, it took election officials in Winslow almost two weeks to get a final tally on the local ballot. In the end, all 29 amendments passed.

For most communities, charter amendments were not controversial.

In North Yarmouth, four charter amendments passed easily in an election that had 63 percent of the town’s registered voters casting ballots. Three of the amendments gave selectmen more discretion on administrative and financial decisions, increased the competitive bidding threshold from $500 to $5,000, allowed them to set certain fees that had previously gone to the town meeting, and gave them authority to appoint the Administrative Assistant as the Town Clerk. The other amendment specified that the annual municipal election and town business meeting would be held on different days.

Ogunquit had five charter amendments that sailed through the voter approval process. Two of the amendments reversed previous town actions: one returned the planning board back to an appointive board; and the other changed the referendum voting process for the town budget from “multiple choice” to “yes/no”. Town Manager Tom Fortier said the reasons for the changes were lack of candidates for a previous election of planning board members and confusion over the “multiple choice” method of voting. Kittery also had five charter amendments on the ballot, all of them passing overwhelmingly.

In South Berwick, all four charter amendments passed, but one of them which was intended to clarify the town council’s authority related to its appropriation authority was a closer vote, 1,329-1,157. The three questions that passed more easily included amendments to change charter language making it gender-neutral, creation of the position of vice chair of the town council, and technical changes to the charter to make it more consistent with state law.

To streamline their municipal budget adoption process, residents in the Town of Gray modified their town charter to do away with the annual open town meeting in favor of a “referendum-style” town meeting. The previous charter required both an open town meeting and a referendum vote on the budget.

Poland voters had seven charter amendments to consider, all of them making minor changes. They approved all seven.

South Portland voters passed a charter change that gave city councilors more flexibility for selling municipal bonds.

LAND USE

Voters in the Town of York approved nine zoning amendments and six comprehensive plan amendments. They also amended the town’s residential growth ordinance, suspending it when the unemployment rate is over 6.5 percent (which it currently is). This amendment effectively abolishes the town’s residential growth ordinance because of a sunset provision in it that occurred in mid-November. In nearby Wells, residents overwhelmingly rejected a large-scale water extraction ordinance, which would have both permitted and regulated their operation in town. The vote was 1,422 in favor and 3,199 opposed. Controversy over the issue started last year when the local water district struck a deal with Poland Spring to sell the company large amounts of water. The deal was, however, nixed before it was every consummated.

Acquisition of public land was voted on in Scarborough and Windham, with different outcomes. Scarborough voters approved a $1 million bond to buy open space; whereas, Windham voters rejected a proposal to appropriate $1 million to buy land, or get conservation easements, for public access and recreational purposes.

Regulation of small wind power systems was addressed in new or revised ordinances in Wells, Bar Harbor, and Waldoboro.

Both Kennebunk and Kennebunkport had contract zoning questions on this year’s ballot that got voter approval.

Other Local Issues

Since 1919, the Town of Friendship has been a “dry” town. But after the November election of 2009, stores there will now be allowed to sell beer and wine (but not on Sunday, and no liquor). Residents had rejected previous attempts to get “wet” as recently as 2000, 1992 and 1987. The Town of Morrill also voted to end its “dry” status in 2009.

Voters in the Town of Paris adopted a local recall ordinance for municipal officers. The ordinance sets up requirements for the petition process to initiate a recall and outlines procedures to follow for the recall election.

A proposal to ban dogs on Willard Beach in South Portland during the summer months was defeated by voters. The vote was 6,770 against and 4,377 for.