Frugal citizens react to rising budgets

Town Meeting 2017: Rockport citizens scrutinize spending; after, Select Board renews library debate

Posted:  Sunday, June 18, 2017 - 2:30pm

Rockport citizens scrutinized proposed public spending at annual town meeting, poring especially over administrative and cultural budgets on the town warrant. After town meeting, as new select board members were sworn in, and a chairman and vice chairman were elected, the discussion once again turned to Rockport’s biggest issue: the public library – until, however, the town manager advised that the topic was not on the agenda, and needed to be advertised to the public before advancing (see video).

Approximately 70 citizens and municipal staff had earlier seated themselves in Rockport Opera House at the June 14 2017 Town Meeting, while three select board members and town employees sat on the stage to answer questions about Rockport business and the proposed municipal spend of almost $7.5 million on general government, public works, public safety, culture and recreation.

The lights were on and the camera was rolling, as Moderator Bob Duke convened the meeting at 7 p.m. to take up articles 13 through 37, as written in the 2017 Town Warrant.

The first 12 articles had been addressed June 13 at the polls, where the town elected new select board, school board, budget committee and library committee members. They had also approved building a new middle school with the town of Camden, approved several land use ordinance amendments, and expressed disproval, in a nonbinding referendum, of selling marijuana in town. (See Rockport voters elect new select board members, say yes to middle school construction)

Rockport Select Board convenes for administrative meeting

As customary, the new Rockport Select Board members were sworn in following the June 14 Town Meeting.

Linda Greenlaw read the oath to Tom Gray, Doug Cole and Mark Kelley.

They then sat down on the stage and unanimously elected Ken McKinley as chairman.

There was a split vote on whom to elect as vice chairman. Kelley had nominated Doug Cole, and Gray nominated Casas.

In the end, Kelley and Cole voted for Cole, while Gray, McKinley and Casas voted for Casas.

They then talked about board rules and functions, and McKinley asked them all to take the list home and consider to which committees and boards they might like to serve as liaison.

After that, Cole opened up a short discussion about the library, in which Gray, Kelley and McKinley participated before Town Manager Rick Bates advised that the discussion had not been on the agenda and the public was not served by the Select Board having the discussion.

Their discussion can be viewed on the video that accompanies this article.

The Rockport Select Board will meet Tuesday, June 20, at 7 p.m. at the Rockport Town Office Richardson Room for a workshop.

The agenda includes:

Discussion of schedule, meeting, agendas, etc.

Discussion of committees.

Discussion of goal-setting workshop

The Maine Municipal Legislative Policy Committee

MCEDD representative

Chamber of Commerce membership

Joint meetings with Camden Select Board

Opportunity for Select Board members to ask questions

The continuation of town meeting to Wednesday evening represented the annual tradition of tending to municipal matters.

“This can sometimes move pretty quickly,” Duke said.

Some years, Rockport’s town meeting has zipped along in 35 minutes or even less; other years, like 2016, the citizens debated long into the night on various issues. This year, it was to last one hour and 16 minutes, with the bulk of the questions pertaining to spending.

Robert Caldwell asked for an itemized breakdown of the $1.23 million general government line, and Rockport Financial Director Megan Brackett complied, listing the salaries and expenses, from mileage to legal fees, airline, train and bus fees.

After she finished, board member Ken McKinley said that Camden would reimburse Rockport $68,980 for assessors’ salaries, given that Rockport’s assessor, Kerry Leichtman, splits his time between the two towns. The assessors’ line is $188,848.

 “There’s a lot not to like in this budget,” said Rockport resident Alex Armentrout.

He noted that the town budget had increased 10 percent, which, he said, was: “unsutainable in this town. A lot of people should be upset by the level of increase.”

He asked why the service purchases in the town manager’s budget had increased from $28,000 to $56,000.

Town Manager Rick Bates explained that the town has a new contract with the legal firm Bernstein Shur, of Portland, which establishes a flat fee, as opposed to hourly charges, “so if one department or another calls, it’s all covered.”  

Additionally, the legal fees are consolidated in the town manager’s budget, as opposed to spreading it out across other department budgets.

“It’s not an actual increase,” asked Armentrout.

“We’re moving it into one budget,” said Bates.

Armentrout also asked why benefits were higher for the town clerk’s office budget. Bates explained that the auditor had recommended that the town fund positions with full health insurance, whether employees take it or not.

“Is there a good possibility that at the end of the year those funds will not be expended,” asked Armentrout.

“Yes,” said McKinley.

Armentrout also asked why the budget showed only a $10,000 expense reduction, even though the town is now sharing a police chief with Camden.

“There is a savings of about $55,000 by sharing the police chief but there are other things we are doing with PD that caused other expenditures,” said Bates.

He cited radar and video equipment purchases, for approximately $18,500, as well as $2,200 for uniform changes, paying a parking officer for a few days weekly in the summer, a $5,900 increase to the Maine State Retirement fund, and budgeting $50,000 for overtime, as opposed to $25,000.

Bates said $17,000 would be removed from the department’s career development line to help offset overtime.

Armentrout then noted that the harbor master’s budget had increased 23.6 percent.

“We remember when the harbor cost about $300 a year as opposed to $200,000,” he said. “It’s incomprehensible to me that this town is spending that kind of money on the harbor.”

He also noted that money has been sought from mooring holders, “who don’t stand to benefit.”

Bates said the dock system needs repair and maintenance, and money was invested to build more dinghy space. 

“The harbor brings in $144,000 in revenue,” he said.

“The harbor budget is $192,000 and we bring in $144,000,” said Armentrout. “If we spend $192,000, we should bring in $192,000.”

McKinley announced that the public works line item would be reduced by $80,000, given unexpended money from a previous road improvement bond. That $80,000 will be used to reduce the tax burden, he said. 

That announcement earned a smattering of applause.


The library

The town meeting debate then turned to Article 18, concerning the Culture and Recreation line of the budget. That line comprises the Rockport Public Library, Conservation Commission, Parks and Recreation, Rockport Opera House and maintaining the empty library building at 1 Limerock Street.

The budget totals $710,145; within it, the library appropriates $479,806.

Rockport resident Stephanie Lash told the town that she was concerned about the library budget, noting it had increased 57 percent over the past six years. Lash said that was “not conscionable.”

Bates said the major factor of the increase was due to health insurance costs.

Brackett said the budget also included $35,000 for engineering and planning for a new library. 

Julie Wheaton, Rockport resident, remarked that the library issue — where to build a new library, how much to spend, and how to design it — “has been going on for some time. We have been paying for this for the last several years. We have a budget equal to a city.”

Carl Kaler, Rockport resident, agreed with Wheaton and moved to reduce the culture and recreation line of the budget by $50,000 to remove engineering and planning expenditures for the new library.

Armentrout said: “There may be some merit to voting the whole thing down. It is up 18 percent, mostly in the library.”

Kaler’s amendment went before the voters, but it failed.

Then, the town voted on the culture and library line, as presented on the original Article 18 line, and it passed.

Voters then stood in line to cast secret ballots on whether to exceed the state LD 1 budget line.

LD 1, officially known as the Municipal Property Tax Levy Limit, was passed by state voters in 2004. It regulates the amount of money that municipalities can raise through property taxes. It applies only to property taxes used for municipal operations (road maintenance, libraries, parks and recreation, etc.). It does not apply to property taxes raised for schools, counties, TIFs, or the overlay.

The limit allows a municipality to increase property taxes, but only by an amount equal to the growth of statewide personal income plus local property development within the municipality. The limit is adjusted downward if a municipality receives extra money from the state that it can use instead of property taxes.

When the municipal budget exceeds LD 1 calculation limits, the voters must decide whether to proceed with that spending or not, and do it by secret ballot.

In the end, the warrant article to exceed LD 1 by $135,000 passed, 36 to 19.

The Rockport Select Board also took the time to say goodbye to longtime member Geoff Parker, who served two terms on the board. Prior to that, he had served on the school boards, and prior to that, the town Select Board in the last decade, as well as the Zoning Board of Appeals, in the 1990s.

The board recognized him for his dedication, and especially for donating time, money and equipment to skillfully move the Rockport Opera House video and acoustic system from the19th Century to the 21st Century.

Both Casas and McKinley said they were grateful for Parker’s guidance, kindness and knowledge.

“Thank you very much,” said Parker. “It’s been a terrific learning environment.”

He advised the new board that the best way to show respect was to respect the town staff. 


Related story

Town Meeting 2016: Rockport rejects fiber network study and waste disposal proposal 



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