ROCKPORT — Annual Town Meeting in Rockport drew approximately 70 people to the Rockport Opera House June 15; some were ready to defend certain lines in the budget, others to question and comment, which they did. Still, the town approved 22 warrant articles, including a $1.5 million loan for infrastructure repairs and an $8 million municipal budget.
At the Opera House and just before the meeting began, townspeople also learned that Select Board member John Strand had resigned, effective that day, for personal reasons. The board will take up the discussion about whether to hold a special election to fill his seat. Nomination papers are available at the town office.
Meanwhile, after the town meeting business concluded, the three members of the board who were present — Chair Michelle Hannan, Eric Boucher, and newly elected Jim Annis — along with Mark Kelley, who connected via Zoom, held a brief meeting to reelect Hannan as chair and Kelley as vice chair.
Annual Town Meeting held in person was the conclusion of the two-day affair. On June 14, the town had visited the polls at the Town Office to elect Annis, and had approved all land use and sewer ordinance amendments.
On June 15, the citizens gathered, as is traditional, in the Opera House. This year’s moderator was Lincolnville Town Administrator David Kinney.
Town Manager Jon Duke kicked off the June 15 town meeting agenda, which included consideration of a 2022-2023 $8 million municipal budget (up 7 percent from $6.8 million of 2021-2022 budget) by delivering a mini state of the union address for Rockport, and explaining Article 11, which asked voters to approve a $1.5 million bond to repair reconstruction and improvement projects related to damage caused by the Oct. 31, 2021 storm.
Repair costs exceeds $1.5 million and the town has applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for reimbursement help. Currently, the town is moving through a permitting process with various state and federal agencies, and needs the short-term borrowing to complete the work.
The town is hoping FEMA will give Rockport money to help defray the costs.
“We have been engaging with FEMA but in 16 years, I’ve never seen a process work so slowly,” said Duke.
He said that by the time the town needed to print the town meeting warrant, it had yet to receive assurance from FEMA that any money would be forthcoming.
Articles 12, which proposed $1,5 million for general government, includes administration, planning and development, finance, and the Town Clerk’s office, included hiring the planner full-time, as opposed to four days a week, and increasing the code enforcement officer hours from 32 to 40 per week.
Additionally, the Assessor’s Office is also increasing expenditures by 7 percent, or $16,000. Rockport Town Assessor Kerry Leichtman is going to work full-time in Camden, and that town will contract his hours to Rockport, but the bill goes up by approximately $4,000 for that line item, only.
Town Manager Duke said that when he assumed his post one year ago, he felt good about the town: “and all that is still true. But there were a lot of things in this community that needed work.”
When he started his new job as town manager one year ago, various catastrophes ensued: a sewer line collapsed, air conditioning failed in the town office, rain leaked onto computers — “All that happened in the first month,” he said.
Which convinced Duke that, “we need to be serious about what we have,” and take care of it.
In most municipalities, public works plans a 10-year road maintenance plan. Rockport has fallen behind on its road repair, and “we had paved 23 percent of our roads over the last 10 years,” said Duke.
The Robinson Drive culvert failure during the Oct. 31, 2021 rainstorm was perhaps the canary in the coal mine, he said.
The budget before the town, he said, is to get a hold on what needs maintenance. But it also, “is about the people who do the work,” he said, indirectly supporting the 6 percent cost of living pay increase, and increased employee benefits.
“It’s important to value who we have and who works for us,” he said. “It comes at a great cost but I think that is what our citizens want.”
In total, that part of the budget reflected a 14.5 percent increase, and includes a 6 percent salary increase for town employees. It resulted in a split vote by Select Board members in approving to set the budget before voters.
Duke ended his short talk by acknowledging that costs were high, and that the average budgetary increase in municipalities is now 5.71 percent.
“We’re going to do our best next year to fight that number,” he said.
One citizen asked why the Rockport Budget Committee held split votes on whether to recommend passage of particular expenditures.
Budget Committee member Geoffrey Parker said the committee was a good representation of the town, but held varying opinions.
“I think it has to do with differences in personalities, but everyone on that committee is looking out for the town,” he said.
Later in the meeting, resident John Viehman spoke in favor of the budget, saying to Duke, “I know you do your homework and I support this.”
Article 12 passed, with two opposed.
As the meeting progressed, citizens spoke in favor of the library budget, which ultimately passed, and Duke explained that the price of mowing town-owned property has increased dramatically. Only one company responded to a town circulated bid for mowing services, he said.
Resident Julie Wheaton questioned the wording of Article 25, which authorizes the Select Board to sell or dispose of real estate acquired by the town for nonpayment of wastewater bills.
“What about the people who have fallen on hard times,” she asked.
Select Board Chair Michelle Hannan said: “We don’t want to be in the market of owning real estate. Megan [Brackettt, Rockport Finance Director] works tirelessly to work out a payment plan. It isn’t a decision that comes lightly.”
Duke added: “I think we have a board and employees who want to work overtime to make sure everyone is safe.”
The meeting ended with a commentary by Rockport resident Doc Wallace complimenting the town on holding firm to a town meeting form of government, with warrant business discussed in person — as opposed to voting on the warrant via secret ballot on voting day.
“I hope we don’t succumb to the Camdenization of Rockport,” he said. “I hope we always that one meeting. It’s a great New England tradition.”
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