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Topsham Board of Selectmen candidates agree on referendum questions

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Topsham Board of Selectmen candidates agree on referendum questions

TOPSHAM — They may be separated in age by nearly 50 years, but Donald Russell and James Morris expressed similar thoughts on several questions posed to them during a public forum on Wednesday, including their opinions on two controversial state referendum issues.

The one-hour forum, held at the Topsham Municipal Complex and hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Brunswick Area and the Topsham Public Library, featured the two candidates for one open seat on the Topsham Board of Selectmen, a post being vacated by Selectman Michelle Derr. The election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 3.

Morris, 23, serves on the Topsham Government Improvement Committee; Russell, 72, is on the Planning Board, and his service record also includes time on the Board of Selectmen, School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors, the Board of Appeals and the Local Redevelopment Authority for the Topsham Navy Annex. Both men have spent all or nearly all of their lives in Topsham.

The forum opened with both candidates being asked their views on state referendum Question 2, which would reduce the Maine vehicle excise tax, and Question 4, the second run at a so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR II.

Both men said they oppose both initiatives. Russell pointed out that two-thirds of Mainers own vehicles at least 6 years old that would not qualify for the tax reduction, and that the loss in revenue to Topsham from the cut would total $567,000.

"I don't think it's fair to give one person a reduction in excise taxes while his neighbor receives no reduction, with the possibility of having his property taxes increase," Russell said.

The question asks voters if they want to cut the rate of the municipal tax by an average of 55 percent on motor vehicles less than 6 years old, while exempting hybrid and other alternative-energy and significantly fuel-efficient vehicles from sales tax and three years of excise tax.

"The vast majority of Mainers would still wind up having to pay these excise taxes," Morris said. "The newer cars are obviously more expensive cars, and the logic there makes no sense, considering those who can afford to pay for more expensive cars could also afford to pay for their excise taxes just like the rest of us."

Russell pointed out that TABOR II repeals the LD 1 spending limit system as it relates to state government, and replaces it structurally with a different system.

"TABOR II recalibrates the entire spending limit system for state government and in so doing establishes fiscal year 2010 as a baseline year for all future growth," Russell said. "Therefore we'll have the effect of locking in state level spending at historical low levels."

He said LD 1 is a more stable system over time.

Morris argued that TABOR II takes the job of budget management away from the legislators. "Putting in place a system that's inherently different from the system that we've been running on will stop funds from getting to where they need to be," he said. "The state already has been trying to consolidate schools in order to save money, and these schools still desperately need state funds."

When asked about the placement of cellular towers near homes and neighborhoods in Topsham, the candidates offered slightly different perspectives. Russell said he would follow Topsham's ordinances concerning the location of the towers, and that the applicant would have to adhere to a set of standards and requirements in order to gain approval.

"And if they follow that, unless the town changes its ordinances, we have to follow our ordinances," he said. "When we're sworn into office, we're sworn in to uphold the ordinances of the state of Maine, the federal government and the town of Topsham. It's not the case of a popularity contest ... If it's a bad idea, and the residents of Topsham think it's a bad idea, then it's time to amend the ordinance to reflect that."

Morris agreed that the ordinances must be taken into consideration in such matters. Still, he added, "I would not like to live next to a cell tower. I use my cell phone on a very regular basis, but I have also stood next to cell towers and other towers and gotten headaches from them. I think it definitely is a quality of life issue, especially if you have it plopped right in the center of a neighborhood."

Morris lauded technology but pointed out that if it would hinder the quality of residents' lives, alternatives should be found. The opinions of the boards set up to consider such matters are important, he said, "but ultimately it's a question of how do you want people to be able to live. Do you want people to be happy in this town?"

Among other questions the candidates faced was one about eliminating town employees in the wake of continued reduced revenues. Morris said the entire scope of the town would need to be re-analyzed in finding budget cuts.

"A job is a job, and ... you don't want to kick someone out of their position," he said, adding that the shifting of an employee earlier this year to a different department allowed that person to be kept on board while reducing expenses, "and I feel that that is something that we should look at first before just handing somebody a pink slip."

If revenues continue to decrease, the Board of Selectmen is obligated to look in all budget areas, and not just cutting staff, Russell said: "You have to look at the efficiency of the operation from the top down, and make those adjustments to keep the town functioning. ... There's only so much money there to work with."

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.