2015-07-31 / Community

News Briefs

Eric Labelle Eric Labelle New public works director in place

The former No. 2 man at the highway garage in Maine’s largest city is now the top dog at the Kennebunk Department of Public Works. Eric Labelle began work July 23, replacing Thomas Martin Jr., who resigned April 21, after 14 months on the job.

Labelle was most recently the deputy director of Portland Public Services, a job he’d held since November 2010. Prior to that he was the community services director for the city of Auburn (from 2007 to 2010) and a city engineer for Portland (from 1999 to 2007).

A Falmouth native, Labelle also has logged time as public services director for Johnson City, New York, and as an engineer for the Kennebunk Sewer District.

“So, I’ve come full circle,” he said on Monday.

Labelle will be officially introduced to selectmen at their Aug. 11 meeting. Town Manager Barry Tibbetts was not available for comment Monday, but Finance Director Joel Downs said Labelle beat out “around 24” applicants for the job, of whom “about four” were interviewed. According to Downs, Labelle will be paid a base salary of $84,000 — $2,000 more per year than Martin recieved.

Consultant Mike Pardue, of The Tidewater Group, who has been serving as Kennebunk’s interim director of public works at $50 per hour since late January, when Martin went out on medical leave for knee replacement surgery. Pardue has been at work on a comprehensive report on the town’s public work’s operations and Tibbetts said that report, originally slated for release in April, should be unveiled later this summer.

Wording change for animal ordinance

Kennebunkport selectmen still plan to send voters a do-over of the animal control ordinance adopted by voters June 9, but in the latest promulgation will pull out some of the language that prompted the need for an update.

Wording of the new ordinance which, prior to June, had not seen an update since 1976, was questioned in May. But by then, with absentee ballots already in circulation, it was too late to make a change. According to Town Manager Laurie Smith, the problem is the revision can be interpreted to mean dogs must be kept entirely out of the West End Plover Protector Area (WEPPA) at Goose Rocks Beach. Reading the ordinance that way would ban dogs year-round from the area between the Batson River to 200 feet east of Norwood Lane.

Currently, the town is not enforcing a full ban, only the restricted hours applicable elsewhere on Kennebunkport Beaches. Those limits allow dogs to be off lease during the nesting season of the endangered piping plover shorebird only from 6 to 7:30 a.m.

A new ordinance will still go to voters in November. However, at the July 23 selectmen’s meeting, town attorney Amy Tchao announced that the WEPPA restrictions will be struck from the ordinance entirely. Instead, those limits, which will require dogs to be leashed in the WEPPA area at all times from April 1 to Sept. 30, will be encoded in a set of rules for the beach.

“The board of selectmen have the authority to adopt rules without having to go back to a town meeting,” Tchao said. “We thought that would be a cleaner approach.”

The new rules also will make clear that a 200-foot restricted area around nests fenced off by town or state officials will not apply to private lawns, roads, or paths to the beach.

“(The Maine Department of) Inland Fisheries and Wildlife was very clear in saying it would not be a violation for people to be on their lawns or, in some cases, on Kings Highway,” Tchao said. “But if you are a dog owner, you should be trying to move through and away from those areas as quickly as possible. That’s what the general gist is.”

Tax rate set for Kennebunkport

The tax rate for Kennebunkport property owners has been set at $7.70 per $1,000 of assessed value for the new budget year that began July 1. That’s a savings of 13 cents off the anticipated mil rate of $7.83 announced earlier in the budget season.

Selectmen set the new rate at their July 23 meeting. The final number is a 0.92 percent increase over the previous mil rate of $7.63 per $1,000 of assessed value.

“There’s not many communities that come in at less than a percent increase on the tax rate, so good job,” Town Manager Laurie Smith said.

Smith attributed the lower-than-expected tax rate largely to a $9.4 million increase in property values town-wide, based on increased assessments and new development.

Although Smith also offered a $7.68 mil rate, selectmen followed her recommendation for the slightly higher rate because it will give the town an overlay of $63,799.

An overlay is the amount raised from taxes above what is needed to fund the town. That money is used to cover any tax abatements filed and approved during the coming budget year. Anything from the overlay that is not spent by June 30, 2016 will roll back into the town’s undesignated surplus account. The $7.68 mil rate would have provided an overlay of just $25,844 for the $17 million budget for fiscal year 2016, Smith said.

“I’d rather not sell the taxpayers short for two cents (on the mil rate),” Selectman Edward Hutchins said.

“This isn’t a spending decision, it’s just a buffering decision,” Selectman Stuart Barwise agreed.

The new mil rate means the owner of a median single-family home in Kennebunkport can expect a tax bill this year of $2,300. That’s an increase of $11 over last year, when the mil rate was $7.63 per $1,000 of assessed value.

However, Sheila Matthews-Bull, chairman of the board of selectmen, offered a word of caution.

“We have to remember that next year when the school starts its (renovation) project, we’re going to take a big hit,” she said.

However, her peers on the board pointed out that a bill sponsored by Kennebunk legislator Christopher Babbage — passed June 15 over a veto by Gov. Paul LePage — will let school districts repay bonds using a level payment structure, much like a home mortgage. Previously, interest on the bonds was front-loaded, meaning high first payments in the initial years of the payback period.

“We’re not going to be chasing a number up and down a scale anymore,” Selectmen Patrick Briggs said. “I’m very pleased the state was willing to consider and pass this as a law. It’s easier to budget that way in my mind.”

Board takes issue with use of ‘plague’

With numbers in hand from a detailed report of the new automated parking gate at the municipal lot on Spring Street, Kennebunkport selectmen have backed off their previous statements of concern, opting to make no additional changes for the balance of the tourist season.

A report presented at the July 23 selectmen’s meeting shows that in the first 44 days of operation — from June 3 to July 16 — the gate processed 13,797 transactions. At $3 per hour for parking, that was good for a haul of $92,991. Smith offered an additional addendum, noting that through July 23, the take had grown to $110,000 — well on pace with previous revenues before the new gate went in.

However, the numbers also seemed to verify the anecdotal evidence that raised red flags at the July 9 selectmen’s meeting. According to the data, during that same 44-day period, the vendor for the gate had to perform 56 service calls.

“That could be from the gate not working properly to the gate torn off,” Smith said.

A key problem with the gate has been reading international credit cards. In all, 51 cards were rejected by the machine Smith said. Bills were mailed to those car owners, as well as to another 11 who claimed not to have a credit or debit card — the new gate does not accept cash — “about half” of which have since been paid, Smith said.

Between service calls and card rejections, the new gate prompted nearly 2.5 incidents per day during the reporting period. In addition, customer frustration and “other issues” resulted in the gate being vandalized six times, an average of once per week of operation.

Since then, things have calmed down, Smith said.

“I would say we have seen a decline in the number of incidents and we continue to take feedback to try to make the system better each and every day,” Smith said.

Smith also called out the Post for its July 13 article covering the selectmen’s concerns about the gate, titled “Port plagued by parking problems.”

“I was disheartened to see that headline. I thought it only had one side of the story,” Smith said. “With the number of transitions, the number of rejected credit cards and services calls we just are 0.3 percent, overall. So, I don’t think that we’re ‘plagued.’”

The math actually works out to an error rate of 0.8 percent. However, Selectman Stuart Barwise acknowledged selectmen seemed more motivated in their July 9 discussions by the number of issues per day, and fairly frequent vandalism, than by the overall error rate. Still, he was willing to back off from his previous assessment, that the new system should be junked.

“The data demonstrates that some of the initial hyperbole and our flailing was not necessary,” he said, noting that his comments on July 9 were grounded in “extreme frustration.”

“It sounds to me like the system is sound and it is working,” he said.

Although she had previously reported that area business owners were weary of fielding complaints from shoppers — some of whom reportedly claimed they were never coming back to Kennebunkport — Chairman Sheila Matthews-Bull echoed Barwise’s assessment.

“For the first season, I think it’s working very well,” she said.

Although the gate was intended to do away with home attendants, two lot workers were rehired from last year due to the frequency of the issues at the gate. Matthews-Bull had championed hiring additional workers to cover evening hours at the lot, but her peers declined.

– Compiled by Staff Writer Duke Harrington.

Return to top