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SCARBOROUGH — Cumberland County residents last year approved the county’s first-ever charter, which dictates the way the county is organized and governed.
The document also increased the number of districts, and the number of elected county commissioners, from three to five. In March, the county map was redrawn to accommodate the two new districts, with no existing district keeping its former boundaries.
On Nov. 8, voters in District 1 – Scarborough, Baldwin, Bridgton, Gorham, Harrison, Sebago and Standish – will elect a commissioner to represent them for the next four years.
Three candidates are running for the post, all of whom would be first-time commissioners: Neil D. Jamieson Jr., of Scarborough; Annalee Rosenblatt, also of Scarborough, and Lisa R. Villa, of Harrison.
Of the three candidates, Jamieson, a Scarborough trial lawyer, is the only one who supports the county referendum on a $33 million bond to repair and renovate the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland.
The project would include upgrades to restrooms, new seats, a new facade, an improved vendor area, an improved loading dock and handicapped accessibility. The bond would also make renovations requested by the Portland Pirates hockey team, including the addition of higher-priced club seats and improvements to locker rooms.
“This is a perfect time to update the Civic Center,” Jamieson said. “The cost of building is low. The cost of borrowing money is historically low, so there is a bigger bang for your buck to do it now.”
He also said the economic impact of the Civic Center on Portland justifies the need for the repairs and renovations.
“There’s $15 million in spin-off income for area restaurants, hotels, cab drivers,” and more, he said, citing numbers from the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce.
Jamieson is an elected member of the Cumberland County Charter Commission, and a former chairman of the Scarborough Democratic Committee, former member of the Maine Bar Association Board of Governors and former president of the Bates College Alumni Association. But he said its his small-business owner acumen that would make him a good commissioner.
“(My law firm) is like any other small business,” he said. “You have to make difficult decisions every day, every week and every month to be successful. I know what it means to streamline, to make difficult decisions, and to be more efficient.”
Jamieson said the biggest problem facing the county is the financial pressure on towns to continue to provide services – without raising taxes – while dealing with ever-constricting budgets thanks to declining state funding.
He said he would prioritize the role of Community Development Block Grants for rural towns in the district and continue to seek ways to consolidate local services, such as emergency dispatch at the county level, something already done in Harrison and Bridgton.
“County government offers such a tremendous opportunity as a partner, as a facilitator,” he said. “Not as a a Pac-Man eating up smaller towns, but as a partner. The benefits far outweigh the negatives.”
Rosenblatt said fiscal conservatism and an eye on keeping the county’s budget tight will guide her if she is elected.
“I see my role as asking questions, making sure the budget is as tight as it can be,” the human resources and labor relations consultant said. “That expenditures are justified, that when the county goes for grants to ask questions to make sure there are no strings attached for long-term commitments.”
Rosenblatt also said she would work to ensure the rural towns in the district continue to receive strong, effective policing from the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.
She said she offers experience working at the county level, thanks to her consulting work for Piscataquis, Lincoln, Franklin and Oxford Counties, and her previous time as consultant for Cumberland. Rosenblatt has also served on the Scarborough School Board and the Chamber of Commerce, and is the chairwoman of the Scarborough Republican Committee.
Rosenblatt said she opposes the Civic Center renovation bond question. She said it’s disingenuous for proponents of the bond to say it won’t cost taxpayers any money, and unfair that the Portland Pirates will benefit from the renovation without funding any of the cost.
Supporters say the Civic Center bond will be paid for by extending a Cumberland County Jail bond and instituting a $1 fee on admission tickets for events. Rosenblatt said that if the county can retire the jail bond, it should do so and pass the savings on to taxpayers.
“Over the years, the county should have been budgeting a capital fund for (the Civic Center),” she said. “To allow it to get into disrepair over 43 years, without a reserve fund, is a problem.”
Rosenblatt said she doesn’t think there are any problems exclusive to District 1, but that the diversity of municipalities – from Scarborough’s 19,000 population and proximity to Portland, to Baldwin’s rural population of 1,400 – makes for a unique challenge.
“It’s my responsibility to make sure that residents of rural communities are represented,” she said. “The new charter calls for commissioner meetings being scheduled in the outlying communities. I’ll push for that.”
Villa said inclusion would be the hallmark of her term as county commissioner. The airline flight attendant said she’d regularly reach out to elected and appointed leaders in all the municipalities in her district.
The interests of the rural and urban municipalities “don’t have to be at odds,” Villa said. “We can unify towns, but it’s going to take a plan, and someone willing to engage and work with municipalities and town managers. … I’m that person.”
Villa was appointed to the Cumberland County Charter Commission and is serving her sixth year as a Harrison selectman. She is also the chairwoman of the Cumberland County Finance Committee and has served on the Lakes Region Transportation Coalition and Community Development Municipal Block Grant Review Committee.
Villa said she is staunchly opposed to the Civic Center bond, which she said was crafted and proposed without the input of the majority of municipalities in Cumberland County. She also questioned why representatives of the Portland Pirates, a tenant in the Civic Center, were allowed on the renovation task force.
“To me, it’s cronyism,” she said. “I hate to say that, but I don’t know why you could even have two members of a company making decisions that the taxpayers are going to have to vote on and pay for. I just think it’s wrong.”
Even if other communities had been involved in drafting the plan, she said, the plan as proposed is still ill-suited to benefit the bulk of event attendees or to really improve the Civic Center.
“There’s a lack of adequate parking, seating capacity,” she said. “But what they are getting in this plan are box seats. A lot of people in my community won’t be able to afford that.”
Villa said the biggest problems facing the municipalities and the county as a whole are budgetary. The municipalities can barely afford to cover the cost of services they need to provide,she said, thanks to decreasing returns on excise taxes and state funding.
To combat that, she said she supports the consolidation of services like emergency dispatch and school administration.
“This is the worst economic downturn since the 1930s,” Villa said. “Times are tough for all of us, and I think Cumberland County can find a way to lessen municipalities’ burden.”
Neil D. Jamieson Jr.
Lisa R. Villa