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Second referendum OKs $23.4M RSU 5 budget for Freeport, Pownal, Durham

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Second referendum OKs $23.4M RSU 5 budget for Freeport, Pownal, Durham

FREEPORT — Voters in Freeport, Pownal and Durham approved the $23.4 million Regional School Unit 5 budget Tuesday by 242 votes after initially rejecting it nearly a month ago.

More than 600 additional voters cast ballots this time, approving the fiscal year 2010 school budget 1,058 to 786.

Superintendent of Schools Shannon Welsh said she is pleased the budget is in place for the upcoming school year, but is also aware of the financial hardships facing residents in Pownal and Durham.

"The board has committed to a financial analysis to help determine cost efficiencies and ways to create a conservative budget for the future," Welsh said Tuesday night. "The board has asked the Department of Education to assist us in a three- to five-year financial analysis to better plan for future budgets."

The second budget validation referendum brought out nearly 17 percent of registered voters in the three towns, 6 percent more than the first vote.

In Freeport, nearly 16 percent of registered voters cast ballots and overwhelmingly supported the school spending plan, 883-113.

"People have been streaming in all day," election warden Rick Simard said Tuesday evening. "We've already seen about 450 voters today." He said nearly 300 residents took advantage of absentee ballots to vote in advance.

In Durham, Town Clerk Shannon Plourde said turnout was better than the first referendum, and said more people registered to vote before Tuesday's referendum.

Out of Durham's 3,555 registered voters, 447 cast ballots – nearly 13 percent of the voting population. Residents voted 330-117 against the budget.

Almost 31 percent of voters cast ballots in Pownal. They voted against the spending plan, 343-58.

Town Clerk Kelly Wentworth said voter turnout was less than the June 25 vote.

"I'm not sure if it is the beautiful weather today, or if people are just losing steam," she said.

Jill Bookataub of Pownal said she came to vote Tuesday because she didn't want her taxes to be raised. She also voted against the budget the first time.

"I hope enough people come out again," she said. "This is important. I don't want my taxes to go up."

In Durham, Lisa Pengel said she didn't vote the first time, but she came out to vote against the budget on Tuesday because she didn't want to see an increase in taxes.

"This budget needs to be looked at again, it just doesn't seem fair," she said. "I don't like the consolidation mandate."

But Nancy Doble of Pownal said she voted in favor of the budget.

"Taxes have increased, but it is not all due to consolidation," she said. "I believe the RSU has acted in good faith throughout the process."

Durham resident Jim McLaughlin also said he trusted the actions of the RSU board and voted to pass the budget.

"I want this to go through," he said. "Somebody has been working hard for the past eight months."

Freeport resident Corgie Southall said the last referendum vote, where Pownal and Durham overwhelmingly voted against the budget, was a "wake-up call" for Freeport residents.

"I think people were shocked in Freeport that Pownal and Durham had a better showing," she said. "We have a lot at stake here and this is important to our family."

Southall said she has triplets in the school system.

The budget failed by a margin of 79 votes on June 25. Last month 416 Pownal votes were cast and this time, 401 residents cast ballots.

In June, 8 percent of Freeport voters came to the polls, but twice that number showed up for the second opportunity. The 996 Freeport votes helped push the budget approval.

Last month Durham was the swing vote with 9 percent of the population voting. This time 12.5 percent of registered voters cast ballots, but the combined effect of Pownal and Durham was not enough to reject the budget.

Freeport Town Councilor Joe Migliaccio said he was pleased the school budget passed.

"Regardless of the vote, it is critical for people to get and stay involved in the school process," Migliaccio said. "We are just at the starting line of determining if consolidation is going to work."

He said the town meeting and referendum process has been new to Freeport residents, but said the "training wheels are off" and even bigger decisions face school and municipal representatives in November.

"With the economy we are facing and the referendums on the ballot in November to repeal consolidation and excise tax, we are looking at some major wild cards," Migliaccio said. "The future of consolidation and the economy will determine tax shifts."

With the $23.4 million school budget approved, Durham residents will face a 19 percent tax increase, or $496,000 more than this year, and will pay an additional $242 per $100,000 of assessed value.

Pownal residents will experience a 25 percent tax increase, and will pay $450 per $100,000 of assessed value, $330,000 more than this year.

Freeport residents will see a 1.28 percent reduction in taxes, $168,000 less than this year, or $11 less per $100,000.

Since March, the RSU 5 budget has been reduced $755,000, including nearly $50,000 in cuts from the business office, a vacated curriculum director position, a vacated principal position and a reduction of a half-time teaching position at the high school.

In addition to the budget cuts, the Durham Board of Selectmen recently decided to not use all $498,000 in carry-forward funds to offset taxes in one year, but will use $166,000 over three years.

The $23.4 million RSU 5 budget includes an operating budget of $22.7 million, $83,000 for adult education and $620,000 in stimulus funds.

The next RSU 5 meeting will be Aug. 12 to approve and certify the results of the July 28 election.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net.