Smooth sailing as all articles pass at Bethel’s town meeting

Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright speaks at Bethel’s annual town meeting. Rose Lincoln/Bethel Citizen

BETHEL — Ninety-four voters attended Bethel’s Annual Town Meeting held at Crescent Park Elementary School gymnasium Wednesday, June 14.

Two new select board members, Sarah Southam and Michele Cole, sat in front of the stage at the head table with the other board members: Frank Del Duca, Meryl Kelly and Patricia McCartney. Also at the head table were Finance Director and Acting Town Clerk Amy Hanscom and Town Manager Natalie Andrews.

Following the two hour and 17 minute meeting the Select Board stayed and voted unanimously for Meryl Kelly as the new chair, replacing Lloyd Sweetser; and Michele Cole as the new vice chair, replacing Loris Swain. Both Sweetser and Swain lost their bids for re-election to the board on June 13.

The meeting was attentively moderated by Terry Hayes, executive director of Maine Municipal Bond Bank.

Article 3 which allowed the Town Manager a $1,000 minimum amount for “purchases, contracts, agreements and so forth … ” versus the previous $100 minimum, was disputed by Scott Cole, right out of the gate. He said it was a false narrative and that many towns operate on a tight budget. The article which passed allowing for the higher minimum, amends ordinance 5-42. The maximum will stay at $10,000. The article passed with about six people opposed.

Articles 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 passed with little discussion. Except for article 8 the articles were not money requests. Article 8 was $243,220 to operate Bethel’s airport.

Article 11 passed. It fixes due dates for property taxes. Candace Casey, of West Bethel, asked if paying your taxes in advance would allow for a discount. Andrews said they do not have an article that gives a discount to people who pay by a certain date.

Article 12 did not need a vote and was passed over because there was a zero dollar amount listed.

Article 13 (accepting tax revenues) and article 14, administration costs of $243,650, passed with no discussion.

Article 15

“To see what sum of money the town will vote to raise and appropriate for operation of the Town Clerk department.” The FY 2023 amount was $109, 377. The 2024 ask was $180,261.

Cole asked “what are the raises being given to the employees in the coming year and is that money reflected in these appropriations? ” Kelly responded that the number reflects the raises of approximately 8.7% and the money is also for an unfilled grant writer/clerk position.   “It would be nice to have someone to find money for us,” said Kelly.

Resident, Ron Savage made a motion to amend the main motion to $40,000 less than the increase of $70,844. About 15 out of the 94 voted in favor of the amended motion. The amended motion failed.

Rebecca Zicarelli said it would be penny wise and pound foolish not to hire the extra needed person in the town office.

Ryerson made an impassioned plea not to be foolish and blank check something that the town wants when, “we here tonight can make a difference… I think of the poor taxpayers whose taxes keep going up. The food goes up, the gas goes up the fuel goes up and what help are they getting?”

“With this position, it’s a return on our investment,” Kelly responded to Ryerson.

In response to Cole’s inquiry of what grants are available and Ryerson’s question about if they need to be matched, Andrews said,  “Many grants are available through the BIL and DOT … Parking, crosswalks infrastructure, wastewater, ADA, buildings for towns … some of the grants are a matched, a lot of them are not.”

Article 15 passed with about 5 people opposed.

Articles 16, 17 and 18 passed, with little discussion. They were monies to be appropriated for the Assessors, Finance and Planning and Development departments

Article 19

Jane Ryerson asked why the selectmen do not want the police force and the budget committee does.

“We weren’t getting the services that we were contracted to have… that’s what this is about – fulfilling the contract,” said Del Duca

The article asked for either $431,404, which was the Budget Committee’s recommendation for police services or $8,500 for only animal control services, which was the select board’s recommendation. In FY23 the amount was $392,958.

A resident said,  “The town of Bethel is going to be covered by one single deputy… One deputy is not sufficient.”

“The select board was against the increase with no explanation for it.” said McCartney

Kelly said it was reasonable to take the contract back to negotiations. Andrews said they have been discussing the contract with the sheriff and his office is amenable to reviewing the contract.

Ron Savage said we should ask Newry for money to fund the police, “I do feel like we’re getting slightly ripped off.”

From the back of the room, Sheriff Christopher Wainwright walked to the microphone, “The current contract allows for mutual aid. As far as the other part, I guess it’s perspective whether you feel that The Town of Bethel is providing enhanced protection for the other towns.” In response to another question, Wainwright said, “Sometimes you would have two or three deputies [at a time] in Bethel responding to calls.”

The voters passed the budget committee’s recommended amount of $431,404 for Animal Control and Oxford County Sheriff Services.

Article 20 for the Fire Department operating budget, passed without comment.

Article 21 was partly a state contracted increase and a percentage raise. The monies would also raise the nightly minimum from $40 to $80. for  ambulance workers.

Article 22 for operation of the Waste Water Treatment Plant passed.

Public Works (article 23), needed an additional $63,475 for salt, wages, and cemetery mowing said Kelly. It passed unanimously as did article 24 which asked for operations expenses for the Cole Block (town office) of $28, 925, a slight decrease.

Both articles 25 and 26 saw a decrease in the projected budget amount from last year. Article 25 is monies needed for operation of the fire department; article 26 is monies appropriated for operation of the town garage.  They each dropped by about $10,000. “we made good on our promise in December special town meeting that if we didn’t use those funds it would go right back to the old budget and that’s what’s happening here,” said Kelly.

Before a seven minute intermission, Bridget Remington representing the ad hoc Ethel Bisbee School spoke, “we’re looking for your information and input,” she said.

Article 27 (operation of Greenleaf Station/ the ambulance garage), Article 28 (General Assistance), Article 29 (Recreation Board)  and Article 30 (Angevine Park operations) all passed with little or no discussion.

Ryerson “The cemeteries, especially Skilling’s … the stones are white, the stones have been repaired … I just want to say they look wonderful and I appreciate the town did that.” Article 31 passed for $30, 550 for Fountain, Park and Cemetery.

Article 36 (articles 32-35 did not exist due to a typo on the warrant) was $126,818.32 for FY24. Several local non-profits were slated to receive money.

Will Chapman explained why the Museum of the Bethel Historical Society was asking the town for $150,00. Karen Bean asked for support for the museums, as well.

Frank Del Duca said he didn’t vote for most of the entities listed to receive money. He said he felt the taxpayers are already donating and to donate again through taxation wasn’t fair.

Ryerson asked for clarification on the article including why Project Graduation was not listed. Andrews responded that they did not make a request. Ryerson said she felt the historical society already got a break on taxes and she asked why the Bethel Area District Exchange and Food Pantry wanted $25,256.32 from the town.

Executive director Dave Bean said, except for plowing, the district exchange and food pantry had never asked the town for help in the past 32 year. He said he would be asking the other towns that use their services to give money, too.

A motion to amend article 36 that would reduce the dollar figure to $123,818.32 from the $126, 818.32 ($3,000) was passed. (fireworks for the Bethel Resort and Suites were rejected). The amended motion passed.

Article 37 (municipal insurance) and Article 38 (Debt service for FY24) both passed.

Article 39

Ryerson asked to table article 39, appropriating $300,000 to the undesignated fund balance, until after addressing article 42. The vote was too close to call. Hayes, Hanscom and other town official counted 31 in favor of moving the article with  39 opposed. Tabling the article failed.

Ryerson asked if we know what the tax rate will be. “You don’t,” said Andrews. “You’re asking what your mil rate will be? … It is not inexact science because there are too many unknown factors you don’t know what your town assessment is.”

Hanscom reminded voters that taxes are income. “This has to get us through until October through November …if we don’t have enough we are going to have to take out a TANF which is then going to cost us interest.”

“I don’t think I have ever been to a town meeting where its been 4.5 million,” said Ryerson

Article 39 carried, with 1 opposed.

Final article

Due to an error, there were no articles 40 or 41.

Article 42 had an ask of  $1,213,500 for capital improvements including $465,00 for a fire department pumper reserve.

“We have $335,ooo set aside in reserve,” said Hanscom

“So the pumper truck is $900,000?” asked Ryerson.

Fire Chief Mike Jodrey said the prices increased since he first asked several years ago – “$860,000 for this particular truck …I can not in good conscious stand up here and buy one truck for that kind of money. I pay taxes, too.”

He added that this was not a ladder truck; it is a pumper tanker. Ladder trucks, said Jodrey, are starting at $1.5M and going as high as $3M. This truck would last approximately 35 years. He would continue to look for a lesser priced truck, he said.

Ryerson made a motion to amend the dollar figure back to the FY23 figure.

After more discussion Ryerson rescinded her motion.

“Let’s just get it over with,” said a resident.

Article 42 passed for $1,213,500 and the meeting ended.

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