m-topashe-010909 Ashe seeks ways to maintain services, rein in costs

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TOPSHAM — While 2008 was a year of many accomplishments, Town Manager Jim Ashe said he knows there are hurdles ahead in 2009, particularly because of the economy and the 2011 closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station.
“This is going to be a tough one,” Ashe said, explaining that while
there will be people urging conservative spending, “I think the town of
Topsham runs on a pretty tight belt to start with … we’re going to be
very conservative as we go about our business. But if we have major
revenue shortfalls … I hope that the community will let us know how
they feel, because we might not be able to continue offering all the
services we offer.”
After a tax increase this fiscal year of five cents per $1,000 of property valuation, collaboration with neighboring communities continues to be one means Topsham and other towns are exploring to share costs. A regional business park is one option on the table to boost the economy in the wake of the base closure’s impact. One site under consideration is near Interstate 295 and Route 196.
“I think people do like the services they get here,” Ashe said. “They don’t want to do anything to change that. But at the same time we’ve got to be really sensitive to people being able to pay those taxes.”
Ashe’s first year as town manager included voters’ rejection of a proposed Town Charter that  called for replacing Town Meeting with a Town Council form of government. Discussions and recommendations made in the report by the Charter Commission resonated in the town and will be discussed this year by the newly formed Topsham Government Improvement Committee.
A code of conduct and recall provision, as well as ways to improve citizen access to Town Meeting, are among subjects the group intends to discuss.
“It was big for the town, the charter, and getting a decision on it,” Ashe said, crediting “the countless hours that people put in on the Charter Commission as well as those in the audience.”
Another important step for Topsham government last year was getting completely moved into its new Town Hall at 100 Main St.
“I think one of the big reliefs is that we got moved, we got unpacked, we got the building up and running,” Ashe said.
The Navy Annex reuse plan and zoning – critical with closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station – were completed and approved by voters, too. “I think the town should feel good about getting that done, “Ashe said.
It was also a year of musical chairs. Topsham was without a town manager for several months before Ashe was hired, and didn’t have an economic and community development director until John Shattuck took the job. Public Works Director Wes Thames was replaced by Rob Pontau. Assistant Assessor Justin Hennessey took over Susan Nadeau’s job as assessor.
Topsham police filled a long-awaited position with martial artist and musician Alfred Giusto. The department lost one officer, Brett Strout, but Ashe saw the silver lining in that transition.
“It shows what kind of staffing we have, to have someone that was appointed to be the acting (Sagadahoc County) sheriff,” Ashe said, adding that after Strout – tapped this summer by Gov. John Baldacci to fill that interim role – was defeated in the sheriff’s election, winner Joel Merry named Strout his chief deputy. “That said a lot about Brett Strout.”
It was also a big year for community development. Trail projects have been under way, Ashe pointed out, along with major work at the former Cathance Mill.
When the historic property went up for sale, Topsham Development stepped in to buy it for about $80,000, holding it until the town had enough money for the purchase. The Head of Tide Park Committee was formed and went to work securing grants for the riverfront property, allowing the town to acquire it at no taxpayer expense. The Cathance Road site is undergoing improvements to ready it for use this year as a key recreational spot in town, available for activities from picnics to canoe trips.
“We’ve got some unbelievable community members here,” Ashe said. “I’ve never seen such a group of volunteers and compassionate people.”
“We got a lot accomplished in the last year,” he added. “And we’ve got to just keep going full steam and … I hope make the town a better place to live and make it one that (its people) can afford to live in.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. 

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.