CUMBERLAND — The Town Council voted 6-1 Monday to schedule a special, citizen-initiated referendum March 2 on whether the town should borrow up to $4.5 million to improve Route 88 (Foreside Road).
Councilor Mike Perfetti, who cast the dissenting vote, said he preferred a June referendum, which he said would draw a greater turnout.
Councilor Steve Moriarty noted, though, that absentee ballots will be available for about a month prior to the referendum, allowing residents to vote at their convenience.
The Town Council on Dec. 14 authorized a bond issue of up to $4.5 million for the Route 88 shoulder and drainage improvement project. Although the public hearing that night included little comment and no opposition, Jim Higgins of Hedgerow Drive, co-founder of the Cumberland Taxpayers Association, requested a petition the next morning to begin the process to send the council’s action to a referendum.
Higgins secured 714 signatures, which he submitted to Town Clerk Nadeen Daniels earlier this month. Daniels verified that at least 578 signatures – the number necessary to force a vote – were valid.
Higgins, who has criticized “runaway spending” in Cumberland and said the town needs to pay off its debt before obligating taxpayers to any more, spoke during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting.
“You have old folks who can’t afford to live here anymore,” he told Town Manager Bill Shane. “When do you plan to stop spending?”
Councilor Jeff Porter countered that “it’s not up to Bill to decide what the town spends; it’s up to (the council).”
Porter also invited Higgins to participate in the budget process.
Noting that the budget committee is comprised of three councilors, Higgins asked that two or three non-council residents be included on the panel, “and I’d certainly volunteer for that position right out of the gate.”
Following a short, heated exchange with Porter over who is responsible for town spending, Higgins said, “we’re in a crisis here; that’s why I’m a little bit aggressive.”
“We will go through a very thorough (budget) process, like we do every single year,” Porter responded, adding that he looks forward to more residents participating in upcoming budget meetings, “because we do listen.”
Mike Lebel, chairman of the Route 88 Bike/Pedestrian Committee, said he appreciated the comments coming from the Cumberland Taxpayers Association, but also “would have appreciated a little involvement earlier on. We’ve been almost two full years putting the thoughts and the process forward (for the project).”
He said he understands the reluctance to spend money in an economic downturn, but also noted that the economic climate gives Cumberland leverage.
“My company … manages lots of money for big road contractors around the state,” Lebel said. “… They’re standing by waiting for work. … It’s now, or pay the piper down the road. For anyone in this room that thinks that this project is going to be less expensive 10 years from now, that’s a pipe dream. This road is in desperate need of repair.”
Rita Yavinsky of Ole Musket Road suggested the Route 88 referendum be held in June, at the same time as the fiscal 2011 school budget vote, so that residents would see the financial impact of the two major expenditures together.
Shane noted that with a March referendum, the project can take place this year, but that a June vote would postpone the work until next year.
Susan Bisbing of Spruce Lane said she supports a March vote “because I think we’re at the cost that we are now because for 20 years or more nothing’s been done to that road; the same thing’s going to happen by putting it off again.”
“It would be nice to fix it, (and) it would be nice to fix Greely Road,” Higgins said. “We just don’t have the money.”
Moriarty noted that absentee ballots for the March 2 referendum will be available Monday, “so in one sense we don’t really have an election day any longer … we have virtually an election month.”
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or email@example.com.