Gouldsboro petitioned on trash fees, special votes

Posted April 29, 2009, at 7:19 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:09 p.m.

GOULDSBORO, Maine — A group of local residents is hoping to dispose of the municipal trash bag fees that went into effect at the start of the year.

They also hope to change the way special town meeting votes are held.

Citizens’ petitions on each issue have been submitted to town officials and are expected to be discussed tonight by Gouldsboro selectmen, who will decide whether to put the issues out to referendum at the annual town meeting in June. The number of valid voter signatures on each petition exceeds the minimum of 86, which represents 10 percent of voter turnout at the most recent gubernatorial election, according to workers at the town office.

Selectmen are scheduled to meet tonight at 7 at the Gouldsboro town office in Prospect Harbor.

Bob Johnston is a resident who helped collect the signatures. He said Wednesday he thinks there are problems with the trash bag fee program, but the bigger issue is how it was implemented.

A special town meeting was held last August to see if voters wanted to adopt a fee of $1.50 for each trash bag or barrel that was set out for curbside pickup. The measure was approved by a one-vote margin, with 40 people in favor of it and 39 opposed.

Johnston said he thinks special town meeting votes make it too easy for a minority of voters with special interests to change town policies. The 79 people who voted at the special town meeting last August represented less than one-third of the number of people who had cast secret ballots at the annual town meeting two months before, he said. Moreover, he added, voters in June had approved the funding needed to continue with free curbside pickup.

If proposals at special town meetings had to be approved by a two-thirds majority in a secret-ballot vote, he said, the outcome would more closely resemble ballot votes at Gouldsboro’s regular town meetings. This special town meeting standard is what is proposed in one of the petitions.

“I think there’s a way to run a town and a way not to,” Johnston said. “The use of [special town meeting] has been corrupting annual town meeting.”

Johnston said the cost of $1.50 for a trash disposal ticket is “a bit much” for many local residents, which he added may be why there have been reports of increased illegal dumping in town. But if voters at annual town meeting this June uphold the fee, he said he’ll be able to live with it.

“If people vote in favor of it, I won’t complain a single bit,” Johnston said.

Ray Jones, chairman of the town’s solid waste committee, said Wednesday there is a good reason the committee recommended last year that the trash bag fee schedule be adopted. Between 2000 and 2007, the town’s municipal solid waste budget increased 115 percent, from $137,000 to $292,500. Over the same period, he said, the town’s overall municipal operations budget rose 47 percent, from $846,000 to $1,246,000.

“The idea was to try to bring it in line,” Jones said of Gouldsboro’s trash disposal costs.

The town looked into other options, such as picking up trash on its own instead of contracting with a private company to do it, but going with trash bag fees seemed to be the simplest and most cost-effective approach, he said.

Since the trash bag fee went into effect in January, the town has made $18,500 in revenue from trash bag fees and has decreased its tonnage disposal costs by $4,500, according to Jones. Gouldsboro also collects recycling and compost from residents and has been encouraging its residents to do more of each, he said.

“We’re meeting our goal,” Jones said.

As for the petitions and the validity of the special town meeting vote, Jones said there was adequate advance notice about the special town meeting. The open session of annual town meeting last June, which was held the day after the annual secret ballot vote cited by Johnston, had fewer attendees than the special town meeting, he said.

“We live in a democracy,” Jones said. “People are allowed to do what they want to do.”

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