Government Spotlight

Town Meeting voters applaud Eagles Club; approve spending, ordinances

Town Manager Christine Landes opens proceedings alongside Select Board members

| Joanne Cole |

Voters at New Gloucester’s Annual Town Meeting took care of business on Monday night, approving all proposed spending articles, ordinance changes and technical items over the course of two hours in the friendly confines of the Memorial School gym. Vern Maxfield, Town Manager in Woodstock and a longtime town meeting moderator around the region, presided with care and a light touch.

One meeting highlight came early, when the Spirit of America Foundation Award was formally presented to Fraternal Order of Eagles #4131 to honor their “exemplary and commendable” community spirit. The Eagles are a familiar landmark on Sabbathday Road and a formidable engine of fund-raising and community support. The award citation sketched the range and depth of the club’s generosity over the years: helping fire victims, community food pantries, and individuals facing health challenges; contributing $10,000 for Fire Rescue’s Lucas 3 defibrillator; making donations to Maine chapters of the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association and Alzheimer’s Association, and more. Eagles President John Chase accepted the award to a standing ovation.

Then it was on to the warrant. With few controversial items this year, the evening was smooth sailing for veteran moderator Maxfield. Following a rare bit of back-and-forth among residents over the Select Board’s recommendation of $347,308 for paving/chip seal versus the Budget Committee’s $200,000, Maxfield complimented the gathering: “Great discussion. That’s what this is all about.”

In the end, the higher paving/chip seal funding request prevailed handily, as did everything else. With all relevant articles passing, the town budget (excluding MSAD 15 and Cumberland County) tops out at $4.1 million for municipal operations, up from $3.9 million last year. Included are modest raises for some town employees and Fire Rescue personnel—recognition of a competitive market—along with increased hours for the Code Enforcement Officer and Parks and Recreation Director positions. But mostly the numbers maintain the status quo in staffing and services, albeit with increases to cover anticipated fuel, electricity, road salt and other rising costs.

Some $625,000 in contributions into various capital reserve accounts also swept through. Coming out of the capital reserve kitty: a new ambulance and a jaws-of-life extrication tool for Fire Rescue, a Pak-Mor trailer essential for Transfer Station operations, and heat pumps for the library building and the Meetinghouse. American Rescue Plan Act funds will be spent to help fund all but the ambulance.

All budget elements taken together—schools and county included—the overall tax rate is expected to remain flat, thanks in part to use of $500,000 from the town’s Undesignated Fund Balance to offset taxation and $140,000 in ARPA funds for those capital acquisitions. Strong anticipated revenues are also key in the mil rate calculations.

Without discussion, changes to the town’s zoning ordinance involving signs, code officer use determinations and appeals were swiftly approved. Similarly, a new Fire Rescue ordinance was passed almost as quickly as Moderator Vern Maxfield introduced it.

Notably, this year’s Annual Town Meeting was taking place against the backdrop of the Charter Commission’s ongoing work developing a draft town charter. Commission members have discussed at length whether to retain town meeting in its current form, keeping final decision-making authority over budgets and ordinances in the hands of town meeting attendees, or to instead have some or all of the town’s business decided by written ballot in a town-wide election, as was done when pandemic restrictions precluded in-person town meeting.

In its preliminary draft charter, now out and available online, the commission has taken a mixed approach, combining elements of meeting and ballot. A public hearing will be held on Monday May 9 at 7 pm at the Meetinghouse to take community input on any and all proposed provisions of the draft.

For proponents of the town meeting form of government, a robust exchange at this Town Meeting perhaps showed the model at its best. Ten residents, including three Select Board members, spoke about a proposed special revenue account for Parks & Rec that would put activity participants’ fees into a dedicated fund to pay for program expenses, not dependent on taxpayers. The several speakers offered questions, answers, opinions. Won’t some families be excluded under this new pay-to-play model? Shouldn’t rec programs remain free? Actually, fees have been charged right along, came the answer, and scholarships funded through donations are available. So it went, with each successive speaker sharpening and clarifying the picture and sentiment shifting in the room.

At the same time, skeptics of governance by town meeting could perhaps make their case by looking around the room. Some 124 voters attended, said Deputy Clerk Kim Getchell. The town had 4,572 registered voters as of mid-March, she told NGX. Several families took up a first-ever opportunity for childcare during Town Meeting, said Parks and Recreation Director Sarah Rodriguez, who helped organize the childcare. But even so, older faces and voices far outnumbered younger ones, perhaps not surprising for young families with Town Meeting held on a school night.

Ultimately, what lies ahead for town meetings in New Gloucester may depend on what happens with the town charter in coming months. Voters will have their say, just as they did on the budget, capital projects, and ordinances at Monday’s Town Meeting.

Moderator Vern Maxfield looks on as Select Board member Tammy Donovan makes a point