North Yarmouth Town Meeting OKs $2.7M budget, but not without questions

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NORTH YARMOUTH — Town Meeting on April 11 approved a $2.7 million municipal budget, and spending $100,000 for the purchase and preservation of undeveloped Knight’s Pond and Blueberry Hill.

The town budget, down nearly $117,000 from current spending, by itself would allow the tax rate to drop 19.6 percent, from the current $17.15 per $100,000 of property valuation, to $16.67.

But a 4.9 percent Cumberland County tax increase (to about $13,600), and a potential 8 percent School Administrative District 51 tax hike (to $6.4 million), would cause a net 4 percent property tax increase, resulting in a tax rate of $17.68.

For a home valued at $300,000, that hike would add $159 in annual taxes.

Various items on the 29-article warrant elicited criticism during the meeting, including several typos in the warrant. For instance, the approximately $192,000 presented for fixed expenses had to be amended to $769,000, and then approved as amended; another fix changed the approximately $686,000 Public Works line item to about $582,000.

“I’m a little concerned that we keep on coming up against changes here,” Woody Brewer of Sweetser Road said. “These are major changes. This is sloppy work, guys. Someone should have proofed this.”

“All the selectmen, you signed this,” he said later in the meeting. “How could you sign something so sloppy … and say this is acceptable? You guys failed at your job.”

Selectman Mark Girard responded that “as a volunteer, essentially – being paid $1,200 a year to do this job – I am more than happy to take responsibility for being human, having a family, and having other details in life. I apologize for any of the mistakes that were made. We tried our best; we obviously didn’t do our best in this particularly case.”

Marnie Diffin, formerly the town’s administrative assistant and interim town manager, questioned the inclusion of Cumberland County taxes as a “fixed expense.”

“Is that legal?,” she asked. “Because in my experience, one does not vote on county tax the way it has been presented. … Town Meeting warrant articles are usually open for debate, and raising and lowering. … County tax, in my opinion, is something you cannot as a town avoid.”

She moved, “just for the sake of an argument,” to reduce the Fixed Expenses line item by more than $293,000, the amount budgeted for county taxes.

Steve Palmer, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, noted that a motion would be needed to put that money back into the budget, since “we can’t not pay county taxes.”

Whether the tax is included in the warrant or not, “neither approach is illegal,” Town Manager Rosemary Roy explained. “It’s my feeling, and my experience, that folks like to know, and like to have that option, to vote on their county taxes. Even though if you were to vote it down, you’d all end up with a lien on your property. But I think that’s important for all of us to know, that you do have a right to do that.”

Thaddeus Day, an attorney who lives on Hallowell Road, encouraged voters to defeat the motion to amend – which they ultimately did – “otherwise we’ll have to talk to the Board of Selectmen about whether or not we’re going to have a mutiny in the county.”

A $55,000 equipment reserve article for the Public Works and Fire-Rescue departments also came under scrutiny for listing a total budget amount, but not individual items, as in past warrants.

“Over the years … there’s often been a lot of debate on ‘do we really need a snow plow?,” Dixie Hayes of New Gloucester Road said. “And though I appreciate the fact that this is all together … I just want to go on record saying that I would be happier to actually see where my money is going.”

Girard said selectmen, along with the Budget Committee, town manager and department heads, look at anticipated requirements for new equipment during the budget process.

“It is the policy of this board, that when we actually go to purchase, or authorize the purchase of any piece of equipment, it will be a prominently placed on the agenda of the Board of Selectmen,” he said.

“Instead of sitting here at Town Meeting for a couple of hours on a Saturday morning, trying to talk about whether we need a 300-, or 325-horsepower motor, we would do that in the Board of Selectmen process,” where public input would be encouraged, he added.

Dave Holman of Sligo Road, a member of the Budget Committee, said “I think it is correct that big-ticket purchases, or large projects and line items, should be presented in the warrant articles. … I hope we can work together to make this a little more transparent for the townspeople, so that people don’t feel as though things are being hidden or switched around.”

The Knight’s Pond/Blueberry Hill acquisition received positive feedback from voters, who approved spending up to $100,000 from the town’s Future Lands fund for the $1.13 million acquisition and preservation of the mostly forested tract. The 215-acre undeveloped parcel, off Greely Road Extension, is mostly in Cumberland, with 50 acres in North Yarmouth.

The Cumberland Town Council in February approved contributing $300,000 from its Open Space Acquisition reserves. Also in hand are $415,000 from foundations and private individuals, as well as a $225,000 Land for Maine’s Future grant.

But Gov. Paul LePage’s decision to withhold voter-approved bonds earmarked for LMF conservation projects would mean the Knight’s Pond project, and others, would not receive funds for completion.

Whether funding comes through is “an open-ended question right now,” Gregg Caporossi, project manager at the Trust for Public Land, said last week.

TPL has until the end of next month to exercise its option on the property, and will at that point be obligated to close by June 30. The two towns will then acquire their portions of the property from TPL, and convey easements to their respective land trusts, Caporossi has said.

LMF has approximately $2.2 million on hand, an insufficient amount to fund 36 active projects the program is working to complete, the Bangor Daily News has reported. The projects’ total estimated cost is $11.35 million.

“Our hope is that Knight’s Pond and Blueberry Hill will be in a position to close by the end of June, and we will have been through the entire LMF review process, to make sure that if the governor releases the $2.2 million, that Knight’s Pond is a likely candidate to receive those funds,” Caporossi said.

“We will do our best to put contingency plans in place, so that if the LMF funds don’t flow to the project, we have some recourse of how we’re going to address that,” he added.

Town Meeting drew 125 registered voters to North Yarmouth Memorial School.

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

Sidebar Elements

North Yarmouth Public Works Director Clark Baston answers a question during the April 11 annual Town Meeting. Behind him is Marnie Diffin, the town’s former administrative assistant and interim town manager.

North Yarmouth Town Meeting on April 11 drew 125 of the town’s 3,115 registered voters.

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.