On the issues: Rockland City Council Candidate Sarah Austin

Thu, 10/15/2020 - 8:15pm

    Penobscot Bay Pilot has posed questions to each candidate running for Rockland City Council, providing the opportunity for the public to better understand their positions on issues. There are five candidates competing for two seats, both of them three-year terms. The candidates are Sarah Austin, Ian Emmott, Adam Lachman, Louise MacLellan and Ryan Smith. Candidates responding with their individual written answers will have their responses stored in the Pilot’s 2020 Election Resource Guide.

    Please provide a concise biography of yourself.

    My path started in a rural town on the shore of Lake Erie. My young blue-collar parents had a lot of cards stacked against them. Their persistence, community support, and some good luck made it possible for us to find our footing over the years, as my mom painstakingly built up her bakery business and my dad worked his way from factory maintenance to corporate management. They set a powerful example for me of tenacity.

    I earned scholarships to live in Spain as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student, then to study communications and Spanish at American University in Washington, D.C. I also studied in Chile for a semester in college. Repeatedly being an outsider in a new place made me a keen observer and helped me to appreciate the many ways a society can choose to take care of its needs.

    After graduating, I spent a decade working on traditional sailboats running experiential education programs, many of which found their way to Penobscot Bay. That was my introduction to Rockland. The experience of being part of a crew — the crucial teamwork in the face of changing conditions, and learning the necessity for clear and frequent communication have informed how I approach challenges now. I’m not one to hang back when hard work is needed; you’ll find me diving right in, and encouraging others to join in.

    On the personal side, I’ve helped raise two children, who, though not my biological kids, are very dear to me and gave me the gift of experiencing the joys and challenges of parenting. I currently live with two charismatic cats, love tending my veggie and flower garden, and look forward to a post-COVID time when I can visit my brother in New Orleans again.

    Though it isn’t a typical thing to put on a resume, I’m grateful that I’m no stranger to working two or three jobs at a time.

    Even during this campaign, I’ve been juggling remote design work, some shipyard labor, and office duties, alongside volunteering with the MacDougal Community Garden, One Less Worry, and the Parks & Recreation Committee.

    Why take on so much? Back to that winding path of mine... I grew up within a family small business, and saw the hours and dedication it takes to keep the doors open in a recession. I know the lasting impact poverty can have through generations of a family.

    I know what it’s like to get priced out of your home (more than once!) due to gentrification and rising rent. I’ve had to make tough decisions about my own budget to get through tight times and reach my goal of buying a home as a single person. I know struggle, and I choose not to ignore the needs in my community. I aim to do my part to ensure our neighbors won’t slip through the safety net, and have a vibrant community to live in. I feel I can make an even bigger difference in that if elected to City Council.

    What are Rockland's greatest strengths, and how do you hope to maintain them?

    I’ve been lucky to see a lot of the world, and I chose to make my home in Rockland because of the strengths of this community. Above all, we have community spirit and respectful neighborliness. When times are hard, people come out to help each other. We’ve seen that so much during the coronavirus shutdown this year.

    I was furloughed from my job, and spent a few weeks volunteering for One Less Worry at the AIO Food Pantry. I left many shifts a little teary-eyed after seeing humble acts of generosity, and so many folks vowing to pay back the help they received sometime down the road. So many people are sewing and donating face masks. Folks checking in on their neighbors and offering help. Teachers and school staff going the extra mile to help kids keep learning. Essential workers keeping us healthy, fed, and services running. Businesses adapting their operations, and figuring out how to shift again and again as needed. Nonprofits working out how to still serve the homeless, the domestic violence survivors, our LGBT youth, and our neighbors struggling with health risks.

    People stepped up. THAT is what is great about Rockland. Everything else, our hard-working history, our diverse experiences and opinions, our beautiful and historic homes and downtown, those are icing on the cake.

    As a city leader, one’s attitude says a lot to the people you represent and serve. I’m hopeful about our future, because of who we are as a community. We can tackle whatever comes our way, and we will do it together. When elected (and even if not!) I will do everything I can to foster cooperation and participation in our community at all levels, because that’s what builds the relationships that tie us together.

    What are Rockland's greatest problems to address?

    We’ve got a lot of challenges coming our way. Improving our financial position is an ongoing need. Housing is another topic in the questionnaire, so I’ll save comments for that section. What I’d like to highlight are two local government level operational challenges I think we are able to address and improve which could make a significant difference in our community.

    First, communication, specifically between Rockland citizens and the local government.

    We need to have energetic early outreach so that folks have an opportunity to weigh in regarding decisions that affect them. We also need stakeholders to grab those opportunities to show up and speak up, sharing their thoughts on issues and impacts. We can improve our city’s website to give regular updates from our city departments, and let folks know where projects are in the process, especially since some issues take a while to make it through mandated steps.

    Sometimes little steps to facilitate communication can make a big difference. For the Parks & Rec Committee, I set up an email address and a new Facebook page to help promote committee events and projects, and lots of residents who might not be able to attend a meeting do reach out to us via those methods.

    Our city communication must continue to adapt in the face of coronavirus. In-person meetings are risky for some and virtual meetings are inaccessible for others. We need to offer as many options as possible for folks to participate, so we can keep city functions working.

    The second challenge I believe we can tackle is effective implementation of plans. We have worked on  — and paid for — a hefty stack of quality studies, visions, and plans for various areas of the city – the Camden Street corridor, Tillson Ave, Harbor Park and adjacent waterfront properties, and the McLain School building, among others, but many of those plans have languished without being enacted in a meaningful way.

    We need to make small, realistic, action steps an integral part of every plan we commission and adopt, so that the effort and money behind them is well spent, instead of simply being a stack of good intentions.

    What is your vision for Rockland Harbor and where do cruise ships fit into that vision?

    Rockland Harbor should celebrate the diverse uses that are the hallmark of Rockland all the way back. Maintaining and enhancing a healthy ecosystem, and the infrastructure for transportation, fishing, industrial access, recreation, and tourism should be at the top of our list. That infrastructure includes the Public Landing, Middle Pier, our waterfront parks, boat launches, Schooner Wharf, the Breakwater, etc, and the roads, sidewalks, and trails used to access all those places.

    Our waterfront is a gateway to Rockland for ferry passengers arriving from the islands, boaters arriving by water, and also cruise passengers. I encourage enhancements to the facilities & signage focused on those groups so that they can easily enjoy Rockland and find what they need. When we think about “placemaking”, we shouldn’t forget entry by sea as a feature of our city.

    As for cruise ships, their mooring fees contribute about 12% of the city’s budget for harbor infrastructure and services. Losing that revenue this year, and potentially next, will be difficult on the budget. At some point, though, cruise lines are bound to reappear on the horizon. Smaller cruise ships are appropriate to the scale and infrastructure of Rockland Harbor, and I appreciate that they are a way to generate revenues for local merchants, and also bring visitors who aren’t part of the seasonal Route 1 traffic jam.

    As a sailor, I’ve visited many ports that have given themselves over to the massive infrastructure required for the largest cruise ships, and the towns turn into opportunistic cattle calls of tourist enterprise on the days ships are in. Large cruise ships and their parent companies are not known to be impeccable stewards of the sea, and have frequently been cited for egregious polluting. The light and noise of their 24 hour large scale operations are also disruptive to enjoyment of the harbor.

    While we can certainly accommodate an occasional visit, I do not support actively soliciting large cruise ships to make Rockland a regular stop, because it can undesirably change the atmosphere of the harbor, and prevent the community from enjoying it in the ways we do now.

    How best should Rockland address the current housing shortage?

    If elected, I know I’ll have to consider a wide range of matters, but there are specific issues that I care deeply about and aim to make real progress on. Foremost is housing — it’s the fundamental basis for a community.

    Rockland has many housing challenges: rising prices for home sales and corresponding rising rents, high property taxes, lack of affordable workforce housing options, growing demand for vacation homes and short-term rental units, and old housing stock that can be costly to operate and maintain. As a result, Rockland has many residents without adequate housing, and some without ANY housing. Knox County Homeless Coalition documented that the top reason for homelessness in their 900+ folks served in 2019 is lack of affordable options.

    The new comprehensive plan can help identify available areas best suited for newly built homes or apartments, and assess how we can sensibly expedite the development process. Let’s review our permitting and regulatory processes to see how we can safely add flexibility for a variety of solutions. We should also consider the benefits and costs of creating a local Housing Authority to help address long-term planning and marshall resources tailored to Rockland’s needs.

    There isn’t one silver bullet solution, but we shouldn’t throw up our hands. Housing costs will NOT go down without creating more housing somehow. Pricing out residents who otherwise wish to live here is bad for the fabric of our community. We must prioritize flexibility.

    Historically, within Rockland and around the country, a single family home has been just one option someone might choose for shelter through their life. Let’s think expansively about varied options, such as multi-use buildings with upper floor residences, cohousing, well-kept rooming houses, intergenerational family living, houseboats, barn conversions, new apartments in infill areas, off-grid homes, age-in-place friendly homes, and assisted living and nursing / memory care for seniors.

    A shortage of workforce housing also hurts employers who can’t find enough employees to operate at their best capacity. Our economic and social resilience depends on maintaining a diverse population, and we have real opportunities to make that possible via housing solutions.

    A recent revaluation resulted in higher home valuations and taxes. How will you help those homeowners facing a precipitous increase in property taxes?

    I’m among those seeing a major increase in valuation on my home, so I feel this urgency. I support council’s recent action to implement the state option for property tax deferral for seniors who meet the eligibility requirements. It is an imperfect solution, but can provide immediate relief for some while we work on other options.

    Long-term, we need to build Rockland’s population and economy to distribute costs over a larger population and business base. I strongly believe we should also implement a more frequent assessment reevaluation schedule, to smooth the spiky increases and decreases for individual properties.

    Beyond that, we need to actively and loudly advocate for equitable funding from the state of Maine for our school district, and for a full measure of the 5% Maine state sales tax municipal revenue sharing that has been legislated.

    Failing that, we should demand the ability to implement sensible local sales or lodging taxes, as many communities in other states do when significant demand on their infrastructure comes from non-residents. Any of those measures would resolve a significant chunk of our budget woes without relying on property tax increases to foot the bill.

    Is the city on the right path in experimenting with designs for streetscapes and public spaces during this pandemic?

    The community should continually be mindfully seeking positive adjustments to our public spaces, pandemic or no. Having welcoming streets for all kinds of users leads to greater usage, greater care for those spaces, and greater public safety. The key is to make thoughtful changes with good input from stakeholders, and to make those changes at a scale where they can be tweaked for best results- or even reversed if they don’t work. Rockland’s streets have evolved throughout history - cobblestones, asphalt, sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic lights. All those were innovations at one time, some controversial, and now seem commonplace. We’re bound to experience some of the same kinds of changes in our lifetimes. Good communication of plans will go a long way to making smooth changes, whether experimental or lasting, and giving them the best chance for success.

    Do you endorse the zoning change to allow a new nursing home to be built on Old County Road?

    Rockland is a community full of vibrant older folks. We aim to be a community that allows our neighbors to age in place, but without a range of housing and care options, that’s impossible. A crucial question we need to address is “do we have enough space available in flexible senior housing, assisted living, memory care, and nursing care for our community’s anticipated need?” Aging in place shouldn’t arbitrarily end when someone needs greater help than they can receive in their home.

    In my own family, my beloved great-grandmother needed nursing care, and we were unable to find a facility with quality care and available space in her hometown. The transition from her own home to living in nursing care an hour away wasn’t the hard part for her, despite her independence. Her heart really broke at having to move so far from her extended family and the community where she had spent 80 years. She lost the tight social fabric of seeing her lifelong acquaintances in the grocery store or at church. I don’t want to see that problem repeated here.

    Our eldest citizens are vital to our community, and they should not have to move to Bangor, Portland, or out of state when their care needs change. Identifying appropriate places for quality assisted- and nursing-care facilities in our area, and encouraging their development, must be a front of mind. If the impacts to the area are properly studied and found to be manageable, neighbors concerns are heard and addressed thoughtfully, and the design is held to a high standard of quality for its residents, then yes, I am in support of this zoning change.

    Should the Flanagan Center continue collaborating with the YMCA? Would a City Recreation Department make more sense?

    The Parks & Recreation Committee has a working group studying this question right now, and I look forward to their assessment and recommendations. There are many possible ways for the city to approach offering and managing recreation programs. All of those options cost money, and we need to weigh the costs and benefits of each. The YMCA has a deep skill set and deserved reputation for quality programming, and I appreciate how willing they have been to explore options for an evolving collaboration.

    We should not rely on autopilot; sensible change and ongoing improvement are integral to city services. Ideally, we can use this moment to remind ourselves that we need to evaluate contracted city services well before agreements expire, and make sure we have the city staff capacity to address such plans and negotiations appropriately.

    We’re at a point of opportunity with this question, and I hope the public contributes their ideas and concerns to the process. A Zoom listening session is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 18. Please email ​rocklandparks@gmail.com​ to get the event link or contribute your thoughts on the subject.

    What is the importance of local government, and how do you see yourself, as a city councilor, in it?

    Local government is the level where citizens can have the most direct impact on our lives.

    It exists to coordinate collective needs like infrastructure, safety, and long-term planning. Governance is an evolving process, not a static system, and we can always work to improve it. I see the role of City Council as being the intersection of the abstract “city” made of laws and systems, and the community made of humans, to represent the feelings of the community and to thoughtfully respond to the challenges that will come our way with practical and compassionate actions. Elected officials won’t always know the perfect answer, but we must make our best efforts, with the best data we can gather and input from the community, to serve the short- and long-term good for our city.

    What more can city government do to help a community and its small businesses cope with a vulnerable economy during a threatening pandemic?

    I think it’s obvious to let our local businesses lead the way. I support identifying public resources that can be creatively deployed to help local enterprise as conditions change, such as the use of public parks for fitness classes, selectively closing off parking spaces or side streets for outdoor restaurant seating, and offering modest loans to help businesses bridge financial crises more rapidly than state or national programs, as the city has been doing.

    I encourage our local business owners to bring ideas forward, however out-of-the-box they may be, since they know their needs best.

    Our city government can also keep an active role in encouraging public health best practices, since holding the virus at bay will help us to maintain a more normalcy of community and economy than if we are compelled by rising cases to undergo more shutdowns.

    How do you see Rockland fitting into the greater regional economy and culture, and how would you like to develop that?

    Rockland is already a hub for the region, with a diverse concentration of industry, civic and social services, recreation, and culture. We are intrinsically linked with our neighboring communities. Many of us live in one town and work, study, or shop in others. Our emergency services practice mutual aid assistance with nearby towns. I believe we can foster even more cooperation with the communities around us, helping achieve widespread broadband internet, interconnected multi-use trail systems, pooled resources for confronting climate change, etc. We face many similar challenges, and have similar hopes. We can go farther together, and Rockland can be a leader in reaching out to initiate those connections.

    Where are your favorite places to spend time in the Rockland community?

    ●  Rockland Farmers’ Market - I love good food, and the market rounds up so many of my favorite eats!

    ●  Summer Friday evening “Hodgepodge” sailing on the harbor - an eclectic armada of tiny traditional sailboats welcoming whoever can show up with a seaworthy vessel.

    ●  Gilbert-Adams Central Park - great example of how wonderful public spaces can’t be cookie-cutter! Love and labor go a long way, and it is a delightful example of sustainable landscape curated by a dedicated volunteer. Go enjoy a seat in the gazebo at dusk!

    ●  Rockland Public Library - so much more than books. Truly the heart of the city, all year round.

    ●  This last one may sound silly, but I love going to the laundromat. There’s camaraderie when folks are waiting for their wash to finish, and you never know who you might strike up a conversation with. As much as I hope we get back to long snowy evenings chatting over cocktails at the bar, I also miss getting to chat with neighbors folding laundry.  I’ve met a lot of great people that way! 

    Free space! Anything else you'd like to say to the voters that we haven’t considered

    Since coming to Rockland, I’ve devoted hours and energy to community work in Rockland, and whether elected to City Council, that won’t change. I believe in building the community you want to see by showing up and pitching in. I welcome everyone reading this to do the same, in the ways you are able. If you’d like to connect with me to share your concerns or ideas, please email sarahforrockland@gmail.com.

    I also would like to thank all the people who have inspired, encouraged, and volunteered to help me in this campaign. It’s not glamorous work, especially this year, and yet the number of folks willing to share time to register voters, address postcards, make signs, and work at the polls speaks volumes about how much Rockland cares.