HAMPDEN, Maine — While most people were outside enjoying Saturday’s warm, sunny weather or at a favorite pub for St. Patrick’s Day festivities, Hampden town councilors were inside, hashing out priorities and crunching numbers at a nearly six-hour budget workshop.
It may not have been fun, but it was certainly necessary, and by most attendees’ perspectives, productive.
“This is the best meeting I’ve had with full council in a year,” said Susan Lessard, the acting town manager who resigned in August but remained part time to help out until her post could be filled. “This is a lot of work, but it provides much more direction then we had yesterday.”
Lessard and councilors fleshed out priorities for the rest of 2012 while also sizing up any obvious and potential town budget issues they will be dealing with over the next three months as they fashion a budget.
All seven councilors were present for the workshop, which began at 8 a.m. and wrapped up before 2 p.m. Some had to leave the session for a brief time and return.
Councilors came to a consensus on several priorities for the rest of the year including: Take a resident survey; develop a reuse plan for Hampden Academy, which will be closed next fall; improve the council’s relationship and effectiveness as well as its public perception; determine the scope of the council and how big local government should be; improve the town’s business services and support along with customer service; develop municipal parks and trails; create a plan for water, sewer costs and maintenance as well as stormwater management; and come up with creative ways to provide and fund municipal services.
The councilors addressed the issue of its recent lack or productivity and inability to move items while getting bogged down in disagreements and infighting. Another issue was public perception of municipal elections after ballot mistakes were discovered in last November’s election.
“We have to address, and restore public confidence in this body and town elections,” Lessard said. “What you do colors the public’s perception of how this council does business, but it’s more than public perception. We owe the public better than what they’ve been getting.”
As for discussion about a new town budget, most councilors said they prefer to see the town’s tax rate held at its present level — 15.90 mills — without cutting any essential services.
“I’m against raising the mill rate totally, and I’m not in favor of cutting essential services,” said Councilor Kristen Hornbrook.
While Jeremy Williams agreed with that sentiment, fellow Councilor Tom Brann wonders how realistic a steady mill rate is with the increased cost brought about by a new high school opening next fall.
“I’d like to hold the mill rate as well, but citizens voted to increase taxes with the new school, so I think it’s important to tell them it [the rate] may go up,” said Councilor Andre Cushing.
Mayor Janet Hughes prefers to hold the rate “down as much as possible,” and while fellow Councilors Jean Lawlis and Shelby Wright agree with that, they are also against reducing municipal services.
“This may be a case where taxes have to go up, short term, before we’re able to reduce them again through budget relief, which could come from an increase in our school enrollment or location and expansion of businesses in Hampden,” Lawlis said.
Monday night’s regular Town Council meeting figures to be packed with agenda items and may finally resolve the open town manager position.
“We will be voting on the council’s options to hire a town manager and it’s anticipated that we will have a permanent replacement option decided on,” Hughes said.