March Town Meeting Roundup

(from Maine Townsman, April 2009)
By Liz Chapman Mockler

The 2009 annual town meeting season got underway in March as thousands of voters across Maine debated and mostly approved the municipal budget requests proposed by selectmen and local budget committees.

Despite concerns about the bad economy, particularly steep declines in revenue in some communities, voters remained frugal yet practical as they searched for places to cut already bare-bone budgets.

From newspaper reports around the state, it appears that most municipal budgets approved in March did not exceed LD 1 limits. Now four years old, LD 1 places limits on how much property taxes may increase annually in a community, unless the legislative body of that community gives its permission through a special voting process to go over the limit. In fact, in many municipalities, proposed budgets were lower than 2008 spending, and sometimes significantly below the LD 1 limit.

Although some of Maine’s largest municipalities, such as Portland and Augusta, are cutting jobs through layoffs or attrition, for many of the smaller communities, with few municipal employees, a more common approach involved the freezing of wages and other types of personnel cost-savings such as reducing overtime and greater employee cost-sharing of health insurance benefits.

Many towns offered budgets that maintained the tax rate for municipal services, even though some county and school tax bills are still weeks from being finished. Voters in only a handful of towns were asked to override the LD 1 limit and even fewer refused to do so.

In China, voters debated a proposed LD 1override for nearly an hour before approving spending $82,000 beyond the limit, mostly because of emergency dispatch costs and reduced state funding.

Other town residents were too antsy about the national and state economies – and their impact locally – to approve any major new purchases or projects.

Belgrade voters, for example, denied a request for $75,000 to study and develop a plan for a new town office/library facility. The proposed amount was dropped to $60,000, but voters still weren’t biting. The tally was 116-145.

Voters in Hiram rejected a proposal to buy the local elementary school for $220,000 and another to spend $50,000 to study creating a town public works department. In Whitefield, residents voted against a new $750,000 town office building and agreed to shut off all streetlights to save about $3,800.

DECLINING REVENUE

One thing all of the town meetings had in common was discussion of how to get along with less municipal revenue sharing and transportation aid from the state. Meanwhile, when school numbers are firmed up later in the spring, some communities, particularly those that rejected school consolidation plans, will see lower amounts of General Purpose Aid (GPA).

And there’s more bad news. Excise tax revenue is falling as fast as the crippled car industry while some town surplus accounts have been nearly drained and can no longer be a fall back in keeping local property tax rates steady.

In Andover, voters were told that even a four percent spending drop would not lower taxes because the town has no surplus to contribute this year and both the county and school tax bills are expected to come in higher than last year.

Andover municipal workers won’t receive pay raises this year and will be asked to pay a higher amount toward the cost of health insurance under the budget passed last month.

Experts don’t foresee a rebound in the economy for at least another year and a second wave of home foreclosures looms over every town.

MAJOR SPENDING

Despite the general voter unease, residents in several communities approved large projects or other major funding requests to enhance their town government services.

Farmingdale residents authorized selectmen to acquire property along Maine Avenue for a new multi-purpose facility that would house the fire station and likely a new town office.

In Unity, voters agreed to take $125,000 from surplus to finance the town’s first professional revaluation, while Sidney taxpayers debated buying a new $350,000 pumper truck and ultimately agreed it was necessary.

Greene residents supported taking $100,000 from capital reserves to finance all aspects of building a boat launch on Allen Pond, expecting that the state will also help with funding.

And then there were a few towns like Jefferson, where voters approved various projects but then rejected raising taxes to fund them.

TRANSPORTATION

A major and often-controversial issue at town meeting is whether to pave roads and, if so, which ones. This town meeting season, voters were finicky, even with small requests, but a number of major road projects were approved.

Houlton voters agreed to borrow $1 million for roads and sidewalks and Brooks voters will pony up $500,000 for road paving in 2009. Newcastle voters, meanwhile, held a long steamy debate over whether to borrow $1 million over five years to rebuild three town roads. They eventually agreed to the work and to raising $250,000 a year for debt service for the project. Solon voters agreed to borrow $485,000 over 36 months toward a total project of $733,000 to pave two roads.

Other town voters rejected transportation requests, including Andover residents, who withheld support for borrowing $250,000 to repair several town roads; and Sweden, where voters reduced winter road maintenance by $25,000.

ORDINANCES

A number of towns amended their shoreland zoning ordinances, while other voters rejected other kinds of ordinances. Canaan voters, for example, defeated a proposed commercial-development review ordinance offered by the town's planning board. The vote was nearly 2-to-1 against the plan, which would have affected projects 18,000 square feet or larger. Bremen voters turned down two proposed changes to the land use ordinance, including reducing the waterline setback limit to 100 feet.

Detroit updated its shoreland zoning ordinance, while also revising its restrictions on junkyards.

Towns that voted against restrictions on wind farms included Hebron, where residents rejected a proposal to set guidelines for property owners who wanted to construct windmills. Voters in Sedgwick rejected a moratorium on telecommunications towers, wind turbines or antennas in excess of 50 feet in height. In Minot, residents also rejected new restrictions on wind turbine development – arguably one of the most contested issues in local government over the past year.

But voters in Thorndike approved a 6-month moratorium to give the town time to drafts rules for wind turbine development.

Searsport residents passed an ordinance to keep convicted sex offenders at least 500 feet from public parks and playgrounds. By state law, neighbors are notified when a sex offender has moved to an area of town.

The second wave of annual town meetings strikes in May and June for those communities that operate on a July-June fiscal year. For these town meetings, more information will be available to better align local budgets with state and school spending plans and thereby give municipal officials a better handle on the level of property tax collections required.

Liz Chapman Mockler is a freelance writer and media advisor from Bangor.