Residents challenge Bangor council’s power to borrow money

Posted March 22, 2011, at 11:13 a.m.
Last modified March 22, 2011, at 5:30 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Pauline Civiello says she could not believe that the Bangor City Council has the power to borrow an unlimited amount of money to finance construction of a new arena complex.

Civiello, a critic of the new arena proposal and its estimated $65 million price tag, and another resident, Linda Thomas, hope to change the city’s borrowing policy — with or without the council’s cooperation.

The pair of residents met with members of the council’s finance committee Monday to discuss amending the municipal charter to require voter approval for certain types of borrowing.

City Solicitor Norman Heitmann, who has met with Civiello and Thomas about their idea, said it was clear to him that the women would pursue a citizens initiative even if the council balks.

Any changes to the city charter require voter approval, but that vote could be set either by councilors or through the referendum process.

“This is not about micromanaging, but allowing voters to have a say,” Civiello told councilors Monday. “We all have credit cards and they all have limits. But our charter does not provide a limit for the city.”

Voter approval is required of most statewide bonds, and many other municipalities in Maine have provisions in their charters to require voters to approve borrowing under certain conditions.

Although there is nothing in Bangor’s charter limiting borrowing, there is a state statute that says Bangor cannot have debt in excess of 15 percent of its total property value.

In Bangor’s case, the ceiling is about $365 million, according to Finance Director Debbie Cyr. Even with the addition of a $65 million bond to pay for a new arena, Bangor wouldn’t come close to reaching that level, she said.

Civiello and Thomas said the debt ceiling should be much lower and the public should have a more active role. They have not crafted language for Bangor’s charter amendment, but they did agree with councilors Monday that they don’t want any changes to bring unintended consequences.

Members of the finance committee authorized staff to continue working with the two residents on a proposed amendment, but the council did not give the idea its full support. Committee member Rick Bronson called the proposal “well-intentioned,” but he worried about any changes that would hamstring the council’s ability to govern.

“Their idea, as I understand it, would be to compare us to a household budget, but that isn’t the way municipal debt is structured,” he said. “It’s complicated and there are some things the public doesn’t understand, although that doesn’t mean they can’t understand.”

Bronson said the City Council certainly would like to avoid another citizens referendum. Already, there are two pending citywide votes on whether to build a new arena complex and whether the city should consolidate police and fire dispatch services with Penobscot County. Some residents have threatened to initiate a referendum that would prohibit the city from moving forward with implementing single-stream recycling and a “pay as you throw” trash collection system.

“Running government by referendum is not going to work long term,” Bronson said.

Councilor Cary Weston said he doesn’t think the threat of a citizens initiative should determine how the City Council does business.

A draft proposal of the charter amendment is likely to be prepared in the next several weeks and would then go back to the council for review.

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