2015-06-19 / Community

Port voters punts on chamber payment

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — In a light turnout, Kennebunkport voters raced through 59 articles on the annual town meeting warrant in record time Saturday, June 13, pausing only to reject a $1,000 donation to the chamber of commerce on the way to adopting a $7.8 million annual budget.

By most estimates, the crowd gathered at Kennebunkport Consolidated School for the 9 a.m. meeting came to 75 people, or just 3 percent of the town’s 2,527 registered voters. By contrast, 58 percent participated in referendum voting on June 9.

Of course, the referendum included a controversial vote on funding a study into a potential withdrawal of the town from RSU 21 (see election roundup, page 6), several ordinance amendments and municipal elections.

By contrast, the business portion of the annual town meeting was largely limited to boilerplate articles related to the municipal operating budget.

“It used to be we’d get a couple of hundred people at town meeting, but there really wasn’t anything of major discussion this year. I think that’s why we had a lower turnout than normal.” said Allen Daggett, chairman of the board of selectmen.

However, Daggett also pointed to modern technology for changing how people inter- act with their local government.

“All of our meetings are televised now prior to town meeting and a lot of people watch those,” he said. “So usually, in most cases, their questions have already been answered, so there’s not really the need to come to town meeting like there was in year’s past. That’s how I see it, anyway.”

Those who attended the meeting had few questions. By most accounts the meeting only lasted about 45 minutes. Even with the swearing-in ceremony for Daggett and Selectman Stuart Barwise, both of whom ran unopposed for re-election, and a brief selectmen’s meeting at which the chairman’s gavel was passed to Sheila Matthews Bull, the entire session clocked in at less than one hour.

Among the major articles, voters approved raising $816,653 to fund town hall for the coming fiscal year, to start July 1, along with $1.38 million for the police department; $746,647 for the public works department; $640,000 for road improvements; $486,495 for fire and EMS services; $452,169 for solid waste removal; $431,672 for the communications department; and $330,993 for the planning and development office.

Voters also agreed to borrow up to $400,000 to renovate and expand the building used by the police and communications departments.

At the request of selectmen, voters did agree to cut $20,000 from the local “circuit breaker” program that provides tax relief to low-income residents. However, the local program is tied to a similar program on the state level, now called the Property Tax Fairness Credit, which has reduced funding eligibility in recent years. To qualify for a refund of up to $300 from the state, applicants must have an adjusted gross income of no more than $40,000, of which at least 10 percent went to pay property taxes.

The local program is limited to matching the state refund and, according to Town Manager Laurie Smith, Kennebunkport paid out just $1,646 to reimburse six people during the 2015 fiscal year.

“We’re not giving out nearly as much money as we used to and there’s more than enough remaining in the fund to cover this year,” she said.

That allowed voters to reduce the suggested appropriation to zero.

However, while voters took direction from selectmen on that article, they bucked the board when it came to funding “miscellaneous agencies.”

That $8,281 line item includes money to fund the annual Memorial Day parade, July 4 festivities, and maintenance of the Dock Square monument, among other things. However, this year it also included a $1,000 donation to the Kennebunk Kennebunkport and Arundel Chamber of Commerce.

Although reduced during budget deliberations from the $2,500 requested by the chamber, even $1,000 was too much, according to voters.

“It was not real close,” said chamber director Laura Dolce.

The intent of the voters was clear enough from the simple show of hands, following an amendment to cut the chamber’s $1,000 from the line item, she said. There was no need to count hands.

Still, Dolce said she was less concerned about the lopsidedness of the vote than by the tone of the debate.

“I was disappointed in that it did not pass, but I was even more disappointed in that a couple of the residents chose it as an opportunity to attack the businesses in the community and to turn it into a residents vs. businesses argument,” Dolce said on Monday.

Dolce said she was “taken to task” at the meeting for a recent chamber newsletter, in which she referred to area businesses as “the lifeblood of the community.”

“I was baffled that certain people took that to be an attack on the residents,” Dolce said. “One man said the businesses are just about making money, while it’s the residents who volunteer their time to do the work that needs to be done.

“I think people forget it’s not the bricks and mortar of our local businesses that make them valuable,” Dolce said, pointing to the charity work most in the area undertake each year in service to the community. “It’s the people who own them, who run them, and who are employed by them, who, in most cases, are also residents of the community.”

However, budget board member David James, who also chairs the executive committee of the Kennebunkport Residents Association (KRA), said the vote was not meant as a slight to the work the chamber does to promote business interests in the region.

“The taxpayers are certainly supportive of the businesses,” he said. “If they do well and the economy does well, they do well. So, it had nothing to do with whether the residents are against the businesses or not. It had to do entirely with the fact that the chamber is what’s called a payfor service nonprofit. They have members who pay substantially to support their operations.”

The KRA has “about 200” members, James said. And, in a pre-meeting poll taken by 52 percent of the group, 86 percent voted against funding the chamber with tax dollars.

KRA members take a similar stance as a group on other member-supported nonprofits, such as the Kennebunkport Historical Society and River Tree Arts, across the river in Kennebunk’s Lower Village, although many value such groups, individually, James said.

Meanwhile, taxpayers do support the businesses indirectly, by funding increased police patrols during tourist season and paying to maintain the pubic restrooms in Dock Square, he said.

“Really, $1,000 is peanuts in a $7.8 million budget,” James said. “So, it’s not the $1,000. It’s the principal, that the chamber is a pay-for-service organization, and asking all 3,200 residents of the town to support an organization that focuses entirely on the business community, it just does not make sense.

“We’ve turned down funding for them three years in a row now. I think it’s time they got the message,” James said.

Meanwhile, Dolce said she’s satisfied that at least residents got to weigh in on the donation this year. In each of the last two years, the chamber’s funding request has been killed during budget board deliberations.

“I appreciated that the budget board reversed its stand from last year, when the question didn’t even get this far,” she said.

In Arundel, voters did approve the chamber’s full $2,500 funding request at their annual town meeting. Kennebunk kicks in $5,000 each year, derived from a tax increment financing fund for its downtown district.

The lack of $1,000 from the Port will not cripple the chamber, which has an annual operating budget of “Around $300,000,” Dolce said. Nor will the vote impact how the chamber interacts with the town.

“The donation is really more of a symbolic show of support of what we do,” she said. “The vote is not going to change in any way how we handle Kennebunkport, or the work we already do to promote its economic interests.”

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