Proposed Brunswick school bond set for January public hearing

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BRUNSWICK — Town councilors spent their last meeting of 2016 Monday taking action on issues that will shape the 2017 agenda.

The council set several public hearings, including one on Jan. 17, to discuss a $33.6 million bond proposal that couples a new elementary school with repairs to the junior high school.

The motion by Chairwoman Sarah Brayman for a hearing raised questions about whether the council could still choose to split the bond into separate proposals – one for each project – to give the voters a greater choice at a possible June referendum.

Brayman argued that by splitting the vote, the council would honor the School Board’s original proposal and “put forward the widest motion,” which the council could amend after input from the hearing.

The borrowing plan would be the largest ever proposed by the town, and the council spent Monday airing questions for the School Board’s advance consideration. 

Several members of the School Board previewed some of their answers – specifically, their opposition to splitting the bond into two projects.

Chairman Billy Thompson argued that splitting the bond would improve the chances of voters opting for the less expensive, $5.7 million repair bond instead of the $28 million new school project.

Rich Ellis, backed by facilities Chairwoman Sarah Singer, explained that such a route wouldn’t align with the school system’s priorities, and that the need for a new elementary building far outweighs the urgency for the junior high repairs.

The new school would replace Coffin Elementary School, which houses classrooms and its library in 50-year-old mobile units for lack of space.

Ellis also tied the need for classroom space into a argument against waiting for state funding, which architect Lyndon Keck cautioned was an unlikely gamble. A state-funded project would put the school project on an unknown time line, and would delay construction beyond what Ellis thinks the town can handle.

“We can’t as a district wait 10 years to fill the classrooms we need,” he said.

Despite the precautions, Councilor Dan Harris said he favored a split bond.

“If the public is properly informed, and it’s their money … I rely on the public to act accordingly,” Harris said.

The council also expects the School Board to develop a concrete plan for what it intends to do with Coffin School after it is decommissioned.

Plastic bag hearing 

Differing from the Recycling and Sustainability Committee’s endorsement, the council voted 8-1 to set a public hearing for March 6, 2017, on an ordinance that would ban plastic bags in town.

The council will conduct forums for local businesses in February in advance of the hearing.

Brayman opposed the hearing, because the ordinance does not include any penalties to reduce the use of paper bags.

She lamented that Brunswick would not be “a leader in the environment” after Recycling and Sustainability Chairman Mike Wilson expressed “serious concerns” in a letter to the council if the body failed to take actions against paper bags. According to Wilson, bags made of paper take four times more energy to make than plastic, and generate 50 times more water pollutants.

Brayman said if the council passes the plastic bag ban, it would likely take effect next September, giving businesses time to use up their current supplies.

Marijuana moratorium

After a public hearing, the council extended a moratorium on the establishment of licensed retail marijuana stores, social clubs, and manufacturing facilities through May 20, 2017.

Under the Town Charter, a 50-day moratorium previously enacted by the council could not be extended without a public hearing.

Monday’s hearing drew no public comment, although Councilor Kathy Wilson read correspondence from constituent Steve Welcome, who argued that passing smart regulations would be “a better way of handling” pot.

Graham Road landfill update

Town Manager John Eldridge reported that the town is ready to finalize a five-year schedule with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to close the Graham Road landfill.

The work is eligible for a 75 percent state subsidy after the DEP changed its regulations in the early 2000′, causing  the town  to fall out of compliance.

Eldridge said he expects the landfill will cost about $6 million to close, and the town has already put away about $3 million to cover the cost. He is working on contracting with neighboring towns to bring their refuse to Brunswick so the town can generate extra revenue.

“Our hope is, if everything worked out well, we wouldn’t have to bond for this” in order to make up the remaining costs, he said.

In early October, the council formed a Solid Waste Task Force to oversee the process. Councilor Suzan Wilson said the committee will focus on finding a new place for Brunswick to dispose of its waste in advance of the landfill’s closure.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100, or Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Brunswick School Board members say replacing Coffin Elementary School, which lacks adequate classroom space, is their top construction priority.