PR firm hired to garner support for revote on sewer rules

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Bridgton Selectmen have decided to hire a marketing firm to help explain changes they believe are urgently needed to free up unused capacity in the downtown sewer system.

The board agreed Tuesday in a 4-1 vote, with Paul Hoyt opposed, to hire Next Generation Strategies to conduct an informational campaign on revisions to the sewer ordinance that are coming up for a revote in June. The cost of up to $10,000 will be paid from the town’s Sewer Enterprise Fund, the board decided.

Selectmen agreed that residents simply didn’t understand what they were voting on last November, and that — more than any misinformation — was the main reason why they rejected revisions to the Sewer Ordinance that switches from a flow-based user fee system to an equivalent-user fee system. In refining the changes and placing them back before voters, Next Generation Strategies will devise and deliver a campaign to make sure taxpayers understand what they are voting on — and why.

The existing fee system has inequities that don’t allow for ongoing maintenance and operational costs and places a stranglehold on new development, selectmen have repeatedly said — but they haven’t, on their own or working with the Wastewater Committee, been able to get that message across.

The decision to hire the marketing firm, which had earlier been recommended by the Wastewater Committee, comes as the committee’s chairman, Glen “Bear” Zaidman, made a decision to resign. Even though the resignation was not in writing, and the committee urged selectmen not to accept it in order to give Zaidman time to reconsider, the board held an executive session Tuesday and voted afterward to accept Zaidman’s resignation “with regret.”

The vote to accept the resignation was 3-2, with members Greg Watkins and Ken Murphy opposed.

Zaidman, who has expertise on large-scale sewer systems, has volunteered countless hours over the past several years working on the problems of the current system and ways to address them.

Wastewater Committee member Lucia Terry said Zaidman’s reasons for resigning had little to do with voters’ rejection of the ordinance changes. She said that three downtown business owners who joined the committee after the vote failed — Peter Oberg, Al Hayes and Chuck Hamaty — are still members of the committee and have helped to refine the ordinance for a revote.

Oberg was the only Wastewater Committee member opposed to hiring Next Generation Strategies when they made their recommendation at their March 17 meeting. The committee also recommended that only 50% of the money to pay the marketing firm come from the Sewer Enterprise Fund, since they felt the fund was meant for other uses. Town Manager Bob Peabody said the fund currently stands at $430,000.

Hoyt was also the only selectman opposed to paying $100% of the firm’s services from the enterprise fund, saying the sewer users shouldn’t have to foot the entire bill.

“This is a town-wide issue,” Hoyt said. Terry said that several Wastewater Committee members agreed with Hoyt, which was why their recommendation was for only 50% of the campaign’s costs to come from the Sewer Enterprise Fund.

Selectman Bob McHatton said the committee’s views were advisory only, and in his view, “This is what (the Sewer Enterprise Fund) is for.”

At the board’s previous meeting on March 8, McHatton stated that Hamaty still has concerns about one aspect of the ordinance — the “readiness to serve” fee, which requires owners of property along the downtown sewer line to pay into the system regardless of whether they are hooked into it.

McHatton pointed out at that meeting that the readiness to serve fee has always been part of the ordinance, but “We’ve never charged it, because if we charged it, we would have to set aside gallonage even though they might not be used for 10 to 15 years.” He also wanted to make sure residents were aware that the rule revisions “would not raise your taxes” and that “there are no plans to expand” the system at this time.

Peabody said that while in ordinary town business, a public relations firm is not needed, “This particular ordinance is unique — our downtown is closed down at this point. It’s important for people to understand what truly we are doing.”

He added, “You know, it’s one of those cases where sometimes it’s good to go with someone who does this for a living.” He said Anne Krieg, Director of Planning and Economic Development, has met with the firm, and they have done similar work for the town of Camden.

McHatton said he’s heard from some residents who consider it “arrogant” for the board to seek a second vote on an issue that voters have rejected, but “People need to realize how important this is. The main reason is to open up (unused capacity).” With the new rules in place, he said, there could be somewhere around 7,000 gallons per day available to distribute to a waiting business.”

The PR firm will get to work immediately on the campaign, and selectmen are expected to hold a formal public hearing before the vote.

 

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