Falmouth voters will decide 3 referendum questions

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FALMOUTH — Approximately 30 residents turned out Monday night for public hearings on the $37 million school and municipal budget, and the proposed town center.

The Town Council also added a last-minute third question to the June 14 ballot that would authorize spending $1.7 million for a new wood boiler for the middle school.

The proposed $26.2 million school budget would raise property taxes by 6.3 percent. The increase is due primarily to interest payments on the bond for the new elementary school.

The more than $200,000 cost of a new all-day kindergarten program has been offset by reductions in other areas, primarily including staff reductions that are the result of declining enrollment.

The municipal budget includes a 2.5 percent cost of living salary increase for employees, but does not require a tax increase.

Only four people spoke during the budget hearing; three were in favor of the budget. 

“My take on this is that I feel it’s very important to keep kindergarten all day,” Elwin Hansen said. “Last year, there was a room problem. Now, with the new school, that’s not a problem.”

Hansen said he doesn’t typically support tax increases, but that he felt he had to this time.

“It’s about whether we can afford it or not,” he said. “My take is that we must afford it.”

The school now offers half-day kindergarten with a half-time “Play and Learn” program paid for by parents.

State aid to the schools has been reduced by more than $2.1 million in the past three years. The town has not requested a property tax rate increase since 2007-2008.

The council must still vote next month to formally send the school budget to voters. The budget referendum will be Question 2 on the ballot.

Town center

The debate over the town center proposal drew comments from 13 people, who were almost evenly divided on the issue.

The project – which would move the Falmouth Memorial Library to the Lunt School building, create a community center in the Motz building and make the Plummer building available for lease while creating a green space for community gatherings between the buildings – was introduced by a town committee last year.

The referendum question, Question 1 on the June ballot, asks voters to approve spending $5.65 million for retrofitting the buildings. The renovation costs would be offset by sale of other town buildings, including the Pleasant Hill Fire Station, fundraising by library and $1.5 million from the town’s undesignated fund balance.

As proposed, the construction project would not have an impact on the tax base and cannot move forward until all funding is in place.

Two groups have formed around the issue: The Falmouth Citizens for Sound Choices has been active since the discussion began last summer, collecting signatures for a petition against moving the library and encouraging debate of the estimated costs for the project. The group was started by former library Trustee Lisa Preney and former Town Councilor Dave Libby.

The second group has formed to support the project. Smart Move for Falmouth is run by Marna Miller and Marsha Clark, both of whom spoke during Monday night’s hearing.

“I hear the concerns about the fiscal aspects of projects. I encourage everyone to read the order. There’s a cap on expenditures,” Miller said.

Several other residents also spoke in favor of the proposal.

“I’m excited about this project, especially because it’s right in my neighborhood,” said Mary McCrann, who moved to Middle Road with her husband and baby last year. “I think building community and supporting each other is very important in these times.”

Other residents are not convinced.

Dr. David Andrews, who said he has never spoken at a council meeting before, expressed concerns about fiscal responsibility.

“We need to, as a community, make a decision about needs and wants,” Andrews said. “How many of our citizens know they’re being served lobster when they’re living in a mackerel economy?”

Wood boiler

With the deadline looming to complete the ballot, Question 3 was added to ask voters to approve $1.7 million for a new wood boiler for the middle school.

That amount may be offset by an up to $500,000 grant from the Maine Forest Service. If it wins the grant, the town would have to come up with $1 million, possibly from borrowing. The rest would come out of the school’s undesignated fund balance.

The School Department applied for the grant last month when it discovered the Forest Service was trying to get rid of leftover federal stimulus funds. Applicants had to prove their projects were shovel ready and that they had support from the community.

“This would definitely be an improvement over oil,” School Finance Director Dan O’Shea said Monday. “This is a dramatic improvement.”

The new boiler is projected to save the school approximately $115,000 in fuel costs per year, in addition to using a fuel source much closer to home: waste wood.

The boiler could also potentially heat Town Hall, which is closer to the middle school than the middle school is to the high school.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext.125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.