Bridgton town meeting draws 125, democracy alive & well

 

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

You’ve got to admire Bridgton voters: they demand detailed explanations for every penny they spend. It took the 125 Town Meeting voters three and a half hours to get through 41 warrant articles — even after voting to take 20 annual housekeeping articles as a block.

In the end, after extensive debates on around a dozen issues, voters agreed with most of the town’s recommendations — with one significant exception: they rejected a $350,000 spending package to buy and develop a new Welcome Center on Nulty Street (see sidebar elsewhere in paper). They also said “no” to taking over Home Run Road as a town-owned road — instead agreeing to provide permanent access to the BRAG fields by improving BRAG Way, the town’s existing right-of-way off Route 302.

Strong arguments were made, but ultimately rejected, to reduce or eliminate funding in the following areas: new restrooms and playground at the Salmon Point Campground ($70,000); design funds for the Main Street Streetscape Project ($30,000); interior improvements to Town Hall ($85,000); BRAG maintenance costs ($50,000); and hiring a new full-time police officer ($45,262).

Surprisingly few questions were raised over plans to hire a paid, full-time fire chief. The decision marks the town’s official transition to a paid fire department, although the stipend system for volunteer firefighters and deputy chiefs will remain in place. In a related matter, Fire Chief Glen Garland noted that a study will begin soon to research the location and condition of all dry hydrants in town.

New patrol officer

“There’s only eight of us, including me,” Police Chief Richard Stillman said, after Selectman Paul Hoyt moved to cut the new patrol officer position from the Public Safety account. The town’s 5,200-person population swells to 10,000-15,000 during the 12-week summer season, Stillman said, and he pointed out that the town hasn’t hired a new police officer for 30 years. Selectman Ken Murphy said Bridgton is the fastest-growing town in Cumberland County, “and if you don’t know that, the bell is going to ring soon.”

The new position will eliminate the need to pay patrol officers overtime in order to cover all shifts, Selectman Greg Watkins pointed out. “Also, you’re looking at safety,” he said.

Some criticisms were made that the warrant didn’t show a year-to-year comparison of spending, but Town Manager Bob Peabody said a direct comparison wasn’t possible because some line items within general spending categories were moved up and down. Instead, Peabody chose to focus attention on the significant changes by providing copies of a new “Town Meeting Gazette.”

Town Hall improvements

It costs the town around $18,000 annually to heat and provide lights and water to Town Hall, Peabody said. Voters approved an extra $85,000 for interior work, including an office, repainting of walls and a new electronic bulletin board out front to announce upcoming events. The work comes on top of around a quarter-million dollars in stabilization work that was completed in January.

But some voters took exception to being asked for more money for Town Hall.

“If the new furnace fails five years from now, are we going to have to rip up the ceiling and walls?” asked resident Dick Danis. “I move to remove the $85,000 because this won’t be the end of it — when you come back next time, it should be absolutely final and complete.”

Selectmen pointed out that the Public Works Department is doing the inside painting, eliminating the need to hire a professional painter. McHatton said he brought in a retired contractor to estimate costs, and he said he is confident the estimate is accurate.

Lopez said that method was used the year before, and the estimate ended up being lower than what was required.

At that point, McHatton became a bit frustrated. “I just can’t win with you,” he told Lopez.

Streetscape Design

Zaidman and others thought $30,000 was a lot of money to pay for landscape engineering plans for the Main Street Streetscape Project. But Planning Director Anne Krieg said the town has no choice if it wants to pursue grants to help with construction costs.

Agencies such as Rural Development require “shovel-ready” design specifications before they’ll consider any appeal for funding assistance, Peabody said. The work would be done in conjunction with an upcoming repaving project planned by the Maine Department of Transportation, and he said he expected to meet Friday with MDOT officials to walk the length of the project, running from Green Street to the Monument on Main Hill.

Lopez pointed out that the real preconstruction cost is $90,000, and Peabody acknowledged that the additional $60,000 is coming from a combination of TIF and Community Development Block Grant funds. Resident Susan Hatch cited her disappointment that many of the design suggestions by residents were not implemented with regard to last year’s Depot Street Streetscape Project. Much of the reason was because the bid came back way over the estimated cost, and the project had to be scaled back.

“Why throw good money after bad?” asked resident Dave Crowell.

Hoyt said the town doesn’t need to go along with every design element, such as the engineer’s proposal to create roundabouts at either end of Main Street. “In what world would you get funding for some sort of something we might like to do?” asked Hoyt. “I would never say $30,000 isn’t a lot of money

What was cut

Not all of the budget proposals were passed as presented, however.

Voters cut $19,625 from General Government by eliminating a full-time grant writer, at the suggestion of Selectman Paul Hoyt. They also were able to shave $35,000 from the cost for new playground equipment ($30,000) and restrooms ($80,000) at the Salmon Point Campground by bringing in $50,000 from campground revenues and leftover CDBG funds.

Peabody said the new playground equipment will be similar in design and materials to the Woods Pond Beach playground installed last summer. It will be larger, however, with more swings, and will cost around $30,000. The restroom costs cannot be reduced because of labor requirements that come with the use of CDBG funds.

Woods Pond resident Carole Ayer, who largely funded the Woods Pond playground on her own, was pleased by the drop in the taxpayer burden for the playground construction. Resident Julie Whelchel wondered if it would see much use, but Peabody assured her that with the public beach at Salmon Point, the playground would be busy. The current playground area, Peabody said, is nothing more than “a couple of pieces of pipe,” which wouldn’t be allowed legally if not for its grandfathered status.

BRAG field maintenance

Rick Whelchel was against spending $50,000 for annual maintenance of the BRAG fields, saying the BRAG organization should be responsible for raising the money to finish the work on its own.

McHatton said the all-volunteer BRAG organization hasn’t had the time or resources to focus on grantwriting, and has focused all its efforts on maintenance. He said selectmen opted against asking voters to take over the fields this year, although he was in favor of a straw poll.

Selectman Greg Watkins said the board agreed to sit down with BRAG volunteers after Town Meeting to iron out any remaining issues, but “If we don’t do anything (to invest in maintenance), we’ll be looking at the possibility of jeopardizing the $225,000 the town has already invested in the fields.

“It’s in our best interests to protect (the BRAG fields) as the lien holder in effect,” said Watkins, who also noted that the $50,000 is not a gift; it will be placed in a draw-down account controlled by the town, to be used solely for the maintenance of the fields.

“If it doesn’t cost that much by the time we reach an understanding (with BRAG), we still retain that balance,” he said.

Recreation Director Gary Colello noted that the fields were already getting heavy use, with a 13-team Cal Ripkin Softball Tournament that was held over the weekend. “They’ve played on the fields for two years, and have drawn big crowds,” Colello said.

Lake Region Bus

Robert Howe argued that the $9,600 subsidy for the Lake Region Bus by Regional Transportation should be dropped, citing low ridership levels and its current use by mostly professional people.

But Bridgton Community Center Executive Director Carmen Lone said the Portland to Bridgton bus service is only in its second year, and should be given a chance to grow. Older people use the bus to go to Portland to get their Social Security cards, she said. “Many lives have been improved.”

Murphy pointed out that of all of the Lake Region towns along the bus route, Bridgton has the highest useage. “It would be a big mistake (to eliminate the service) while we’re growing,” he said.

Most of the residents stayed until the meeting ended — at 10:30 p.m.

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