YARMOUTH — A narrow Town Council vote last week on a $25 annual trash disposal fee sparked a somber conversation about the town’s economic future.
After several meetings, the council on Nov. 21 voted 4-3 to institute a car-window sticker fee for residents to access the transfer station and recycling center.
The council also rejected, by a 5-2 vote, the adoption of quiet zones at three Pan Am railroad crossings.
The town expects to sell between 1,500 and 4,500 stickers, generating between $37,500 and $112,500 in annual revenue. That would cover between 3 and 10 percent of the Yarmouth’s solid waste disposal costs, which top $1.1 million a year.
The target start date for the sticker fee is Jan. 1, 2014, with a target enforcement date of Feb. 1.
Chairman Steve Woods and Councilors Randall Bates, James MacLeod and Leslie Hyde voted in favor of the fee; Andrew Kittredge, Pat Thompson and David Craig voted against it.
Fewer than a dozen people addressed the council during a public comment period on the trash fee. They all opposed it.
“Domestic households can’t arbitrarily increase income just because they have rising operating costs, expensive maintenance, or want to buy a new car or boat,” Bruce Soule said. “The owner of the company you work for would throw you out of their office if you went to them and said you needed a raise because you needed to spend more money. They’d say reduce your expenses.
“Normal households need to live within their means, and that applies to town governments,” Soule continued. “The residents of this town do not have unlimited resources.”
Some speakers asked the council to reduce the School Department operating budget rather than raising taxes or creating fees. Several said the town is becoming too expensive for retirees and people on fixed incomes.
Others said – and councilors appeared to agree – that the town has been too slow to respond to the decline in value of Wyman Station, the oil-fired power plant that once constituted about 60 percent of Yarmouth’s tax base, but now makes up only about 5 percent.
Woods said that 20 years ago the station was worth about $300 million, but it could be worth less than $50 million by next year.
Councilors thanked attendees for coming out and participating in the discussion and said they hoped more people would begin attending meetings. MacLeod said it was the liveliest public comment he’d seen in 18 months on the council.
But the tenor of councilors’ remarks about the town’s economic status suggested there would be larger sacrifices to come than a $25 annual fee.
“Whether we have this fee or not, we’re telling you that we are in unprecedented economic times,” Hyde said. “Times have changed and we are trying to find the most equitable way to share the pain.”
The council has tentative plans to vote at its Dec. 19 meeting on sewer fees that could cost average users roughly $300 a year.
Woods said the council and residents need to begin facing the town’s economic realities together.
“Yarmouth needs to decide collectively our future, our will and community interest across the entire socioeconomic spectrum,” Woods said.
“My hope for tonight is this becomes a catalyst” for conversation, he added.
While no one presented concrete ideas for how to address the town’s economic challenges, the council did unanimously appropriate up to $10,000 to the Economic Development Study Committee for research and consulting.
That committee was formed in July and charged with recommending to the council an economic development model for the town that includes a budget, funding sources, and a concept for an organization to implement that vision.
The funds will come from the Economic Development Reserve, which currently has between $55,000 and $60,000, Town Manager Nat Tupper said.
The establishment of a quiet zone would have prohibited trains – specifically Amtrak’s Downeaster passenger train, which runs through Yarmouth an average of six times a day – from sounding their horns in advance of the crossings at Sligo Road, North Road and Elm Street.
Thompson and Craig voted in favor of the quiet zone. Thompson said she felt the train whistle could lower property values for those living near the crossings. Craig noted that Freeport has a quiet zone and said other communities could follow suit, making Yarmouth “a little island of train noise in this region” that could make the town less attractive to potential residents.
Several residents asked the council to enact a quiet zone because they live near the railroad crossings and the train whistles can be heard loudly inside their homes.
To create a quiet zone the town would have had to install supplemental safety measures at each crossing, which would have cost a minimum of $250,000, plus future upkeep, Tupper said.
However, every councilor who rejected the quiet zone cited safety concerns.
Police Chief Mike Morrill said hunters, teenagers and many other people walk on and around the train tracks, illegally, and they would be put at greater risk by the lack of a whistle to signal an oncoming train.
“Why do something to minimize the safety we currently have in place?” Morrill asked.
At least one resident expressed appreciation for the train whistles.
“I really love the sound of the train,” Peggy Kilmer said. “It really makes my heart sing when it goes by.”