Forecaster Forum: Falmouth can't afford not to approve Question 1

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On June 14, Falmouth voters will determine the fate of one of our most significant assets, the Lunt/Plummer-Motz property. It’s a rare opportunity to shape our town’s services for generations to come – without raising taxes. It’s an opportunity that will disappear if Question 1 is defeated and the site is sold to developers.

Question 1 proposes to convert Lunt School into an expanded Falmouth Memorial Library, the Motz wing and Mason Gym into a community center, and Plummer into leasable space. The playground will remain, and a town green will unite the buildings.

For decades, Falmouth has explored proposals for a community center – a facility sorely lacking in our town and limiting Community Programs’ ability to meet the needs of all residents. But each proposal has fallen flat. Either the price, often in the millions of dollars for building and land, has been too high for our fiscally conservative town. Or the plan was so limited that it wasn’t worth pursuing.

Similarly, the Falmouth Memorial Library – heavily used and so cramped for space that it does not meet state standards – has been seeking expansion for eight years. Building and site constraints led a building engineer, the entire 12-member library board, and the Town Council to conclude that it makes no sense to expand on site. The library board voted unanimously that they must move, but a new building on a different site is a very expensive prospect. Cape Elizabeth’s library currently has a proposal for more than $7 million.

However, the upcoming vacancy of Lunt and Plummer-Motz offers Falmouth the opportunity to solve these puzzles at an unbeatable price: $5.65 million that comes solely from the sale of other town property, private gifts to the Library, and up to $1.5 million from the undesignated fund balance. That’s right, Falmouth residents would not see an increase in their taxes to pay for this project.

Opponents of Question 1 argue that the proposal is too good to be true, and can’t possibly be done without raising taxes. But the Town Council understands very clearly that Falmouth residents enjoy having the lowest tax rate of all surrounding towns. The council refused the proposal put forward by the Facilities Committee because it would have required borrowing money and raising taxes.

Instead, the council made multiple compromises, removing Town Hall from the proposal, slating open space behind the buildings to be sold, introducing a revenue-generating public/private partnership, and capping expenses. Compromises continued until a plan emerged where they liked the price tag as much as the vision.

The council wrote Question 1 with multiple safeguards to prevent any possibility of a tax increase. The referendum language clearly states that no new property taxes can be used for renovations. If the projected revenues are not available by December 2015, the project will be called off.

Question 1 isn’t a gamble. It’s a careful plan, fitting for a town that has a national reputation and AA1 Moody’s rating for its outstanding financial management and responsible fiscal decisions. Even council Chairman Tony Payne, while voicing concerns about spending, expressed confidence in the referendum’s safeguards, acknowledging that “the capital improvements to Lunt/Plummer/Motz schools will have no direct impact on the tax rate.”

Question 1 is an incredible bargain, a cost-effective opportunity to meet high demand for community resources popular with residents of all ages and incomes. After five years, even potential operating cost increases are projected to be met by lease income, upgrades to energy systems, and new revenue from property the plan moves onto the tax rolls.

So why is there opposition to Question 1? Opponents offer claims like, “this is the wrong time to spend.” But how fiscally responsible are we if we turn down a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this? I say we can’t afford not to do this.

There was fierce opposition to Community Park and to improvements at Town Landing. But I can’t imagine Falmouth without wonderful assets like this, and we still carry a tax rate that is significantly lower than any of our neighboring towns. Falmouth has a track record of identifying and capitalizing on opportunities to benefit the community without burdening the taxpayer. Let’s not let this opportunity get away.

Vote yes on Question 1.

Marna Miller is a Falmouth resident and co-chairwoman of the Yes on 1 campaign.