Cumberland officials blast Rep. Timmons' reversal on conservation bonds

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CUMBERLAND — Town officials this week pilloried state Rep. Mike Timmons, R-Cumberland, for reversing his position and not voting to override Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of the release of conservation bonds.

Some of those funds were earmarked for the local purchase and preservation of Knight’s Pond.

The Town Council in February approved contributing $300,000 from its Open Space Acquisition reserves for the $1.13 million acquisition and preservation of the mostly forested Knight’s Pond/Blueberry Hill tract. The 215-acre undeveloped parcel, off Greely Road Extension, sits mostly in Cumberland, with 50 acres in North Yarmouth.

North Yarmouth in April approved spending up to $100,000 from its Future Lands fund. 

More than $460,000 from foundations and private individuals, as well as a $225,000 Land for Maine’s Future grant, were also in hand.

But LePage’s decision to withhold voter-approved bonds earmarked for LMF conservation projects means the Knight’s Pond project, and others – including $253,500 for the Wormell Farm, also in Cumberland – will not receive funds for completion.

The Trust for Public Land, the Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust, and the Royal River Conservation Trust have worked with the two towns to purchase and preserve the Knight’s Pond parcel. It is owned by Rebecca Leland Swigget, who inherited the property from her parents, Richard and Helen Knight.

The bond amount is $11.5 million; voters approved nearly $6.5 million in 2010 and $5 million in 2012, according to CCLT President Penny Asherman. The first bond expires in November – the same month that the option agreement on that property expires – and the second in 2017. Funds from both must be released in order for all the projects to receive their designated monies, Asherman said.

“We are disappointed that the politics in Augusta regarding the release of the Land for Maine’s Future funds continues,” Asherman said in an email sent Monday on behalf of her trust, RRCT, and TPL. “The Knight’s Pond & Blueberry Hill project is still awaiting $225,000 it was promised by the LMF Board in July 2014 and we fully expect the governor to pay off this debt to our communities.”

The letter added that the project partners “have already had to ask the landowner for two extensions on the agreement to purchase the land and our time is running out. … We are now forced to work on contingency plans so that we do not lose this incredible opportunity to protect a property that means so much to our communities and our region.”

As the legislative session drew toward a close in June, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, introduced a bill to remove LePage from the bonding process. The Legislature passed that bill, and LePage vetoed it June 30. The Senate voted July 16 to override the veto, but the vote to override failed to reach a two-thirds majority in the House, 91-52.

Timmons initially supported the override, but was among six lawmakers to switch positions and uphold the veto.

“If the Katz bill was to go forward, it would have taken the authority away from the (governor),” he said Monday, noting that the governor has handled LMF finances since the program’s 1987 debut. “To take that authority away … and the (legal) entanglements that you’re going to get into, wouldn’t be easy to solve.”

Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, whose district includes Cumberland, said the governor’s authority for issuing bonds is not in the state Constitution, but is written into the bills themselves.

“So if nothing else, we have learned that when we write another bill for future bonds, we will not include the phrase, ‘under the direction of the governor,'” she said. “This has been a very sad chapter for conservation in Maine.”

Timmons’ vote against the override was not an expression of opposition to the bonds’ release, he said, noting that he had worked for seven months on behalf of their release.

But town councilors and the town manager, at Monday’s council meeting, were not willing to accept Timmons’ explanation.

“You came here (July 13), you told us you were supporting (Katz’s bill), we expected the support, and then you turn around and vote (against the veto override),” Councilor Mike Edes told Timmons. “You knew it was going to kill our trust, it was going to kill the money for Knight’s Pond, it was going to kill (the funds) for Wormell’s.”

“The people from the town of Cumberland want these projects,” Edes continued. “… The people of the town … needed your vote, and two other ones, and this thing would have passed.”

Timmons countered that “the outcome would be exactly the same, either way,” regardless of how he had voted.

Town Manager Bill Shane noted that two-thirds of Cumberland voters supported the 2010 and 2012 bonds.

“Even if you were on the losing side, at least I would have felt, as my representative, you supported the majority of the people that you’re supposed to represent,” an incensed Shane told Timmons. “If we lost, we lost; but we lost with you on the wrong side of this.”

The manager added that “I’m extremely upset with this; I’m extremely upset that the governor didn’t go back and actually try to pull some of these projects out. He’s in a tough spot; I get it. But you were in a tougher spot, because you went against two-thirds of the people that you’re supposed to represent.”

According to the Bangor Daily News, LePage said he did not oppose the LMF funds, but is “against inequality between the rich and the poor when it comes to legislation. LMF bonds go primarily to people who are wealthy, but they’re paid for by the Maine taxpayers.”

LePage proposed a bill that would postpone the bond sale deadline to next June, noting that “if you want to sell Land for Maine’s Future bonds, I want an equal amount, in this case $5 million, from an account that has $10 million in it, to give to people in rural Maine to convert their heating systems,” the newspaper reported.

The Legislature amended that bill before approving it, replacing LePage’s language with a resolve that demanded he release the bonds, the BDN reported July 17. Timmons said Tuesday that he opposed the amended bill, for the same reasons he was against the earlier one.

Timmons said Tuesday that he would invite LePage to Cumberland for a meeting with the Town Council, to explain the process and Timmons’s involvement in it.

Timmons said his decision “was the right thing to do at the time; I’m not going to step back on that. And I’ll have the governor come down and tell the people what Mike Timmons has done since I got the call, right from day one, about the fact that the bonds were a concern for the Cumberland people.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Sidebar Elements

State Rep. Mike Timmons, R-Cumberland.

Final tax rate drops slightly in Cumberland 

CUMBERLAND — The Town Council on Monday set a tax rate for the 2016 fiscal year of $18.10 per $1,000 of property valuation.

While a rate of $18.15 had been projected in April, when the Town Council approved a $10.4 million fiscal 2016 municipal budget, Town Assessor Gary James captured additional new values, Town Manager Bill Shane explained, which resulted in the lower tax rate.

A tax rate breakdown submitted by James shows municipal expenses will account for 29.75 percent of Cumberland’s overall billing distribution. School and county assessments make up about 67 and 3 percent, respectively.

Taxable real estate property was $1.26 billion as of April 1, an increase of $31 million from the year before, according to information provided by the town.

The council also approved a 7 percent interest rate for delinquent real and personal property taxes.

— Alex Lear

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.