NORTH YARMOUTH, Maine — Although the Board of Selectmen proposed a town budget that would have reduced municipal taxes by 5.5 percent, North Yarmouth town meeting voters on April 12 approved changes that will instead raise taxes 2.8 percent.
Selectmen recommended a fiscal 2015 budget of $2.41 million, while the budget committee called for spending $2.48 million. Voters, who have often sided with the budget committee, ultimately approved a $2.51 million spending plan.
The Board of Selectmen’s budget called for a nearly $876,000 tax appropriation on the town side; the additions raise that to about $952,000, not including assessments from Cumberland County and School Administrative District 51.
This year’s town meeting came at a particularly significant time for North Yarmouth, where decisions are on the horizon about what to do with two important pieces of property: the vacant land where Wescustogo Hall stood before it was destroyed by fire last August, and North Yarmouth Memorial School, which SAD 51 will close at the end of June and give to the town.
At the start of the meeting, held at the school, Board of Selectmen Chairman Steve Palmer said one possibility is to use the school as a replacement for Wescustogo, and as a new location for the town office. The North Yarmouth Historical Society would also like to move the Old Town House on Route 9 to the Wescustogo property, Palmer noted.
“The board is working to make sure the town is able to offer the property to the … society, and maintain the integrity of the conditions upon which the town accepted the [former] grange hall as a gift,” he explained.
Palmer called the school “a major resource, [that] needs complete vetting before final decisions are made regarding the use of this property, whether it’s for the town or whether it’s for development.”
The property’s septic system could be a starting point for a wastewater treatment system for the Village Center District, which is consistent with the town’s comprehensive plan, the selectman explained, noting that the parcel’s soil profile would allow expansion of the system.
By repurposing the building as the town’s municipal center, with office space, meeting rooms and a gym, a student campus could become a community campus, Palmer said. A special town meeting late this year or early in 2015 could decide the building’s fate.
For now, the school is slated to be mothballed after its fourth- and fifth-grade students are moved to an expanded Greely Middle School in Cumberland.
Mothballing, which will cost about $20,000, includes draining the 38-year-old building’s pipes, getting rid of the sprinkler system, and boarding up the windows, Interim Town Manager Marnie Diffin has said.
Included in the budget’s approximately $229,000 land use regulation and planning line is $100,000 for items like a planner and consultant, community center concept planning, appraisal of town properties, a comprehensive plan review and update, and septic system permitting at the school.
Mark Verrill, a former selectman, called for an amendment — which was ultimately defeated — to remove the $100,000 allocation.
“I would give the selectmen a failing grade in the last year as far as planning goes, since Wescustogo Hall burned down,” he said. “In my opinion … we should be voting for a replacement of that building, and they should be breaking ground next week.”
Verrill noted that the 1990s agreement between the grange and the town stipulated that if Wescustogo were destroyed, the town would be responsible for rebuilding it.
He also said the school should be sold for private development, and put on the tax rolls.
In advocating the $100,000 expenditure, budget committee member Dave Holman said selectmen are not qualified to conduct that planning, and that “this year of all years, we should keep planning money in the budget; it will be a savings in the long run and hopefully help us lay out our town properly in the future.”
“If we make the wrong move, it’s done,” Palmer said. “This is an opportunity, and fortunately we have people who have the foresight to think ahead, and not where we are. … That’s what this is about — making sure that we can make the right decision.”
“I’m not completely sold on any concept, but this board needs help,” Selectman Paul Napolitano said.
The fate of the school stirred debate again when it came to the approximately $112,000 public facilities allocation. It included the $20,000 cost of mothballing the school, where the boiler may be nearing the end of its life.
“If we were to invest $100,000 in maintaining this building through the winter, and the boiler goes down, we’ve committed ourselves to an additional $100,000 expense, plus whatever losses occurred from freezing of the sprinkler system and pipes and whatever else,” Selectmen Mark Girard said.
“If then we turn around and decide that the best use of this property will be to put it into private hands for redevelopment, we’ve just taken a couple hundred thousand dollars and thrown it away,” he added.
Fire Chief Rick Plummer strongly opposed the mothballing, noting that boarding up the school would “look like crap in town,” and that vacant buildings with deactivated sprinkler systems run the risk of burning down.
If the town wants to use the gym for a meeting during the winter, it would not be able to do so, he said.
“I can’t for the life of me understand that we’re going to drain every bit of … water out of this building,” Plummer added, predicting that by next spring there would be broken pipes and damage to the facility.
“This building has already got problems enough,” he said. “I think that $20,000 to board this building up and mothball it is the end of this building.”
Resident Pam Ames said the town had an estimate of $112,500 to maintain the structure at a minimal level, with the gym still available for events.
She speculated that within six months the town could establish a direction for the building, and that the cost for keeping it open during that time would be about $56,000. With $20,000 already in the budget for mothballing, Ames called for the public facilities line item to be amended to nearly $149,000.
After more discussion, voters approved the increase.
Voters also decided to spend more than selectmen recommended on public works, approving the nearly $711,000 proposed by the budget committee, in part to fund the use of traditional asphalt overlay to pave Sligo Road.
Selectmen had endorsed less expensive chip-sealing, which critics said is noisier and not as smooth.
At the start of the nearly four-hour meeting, attended by more than 100 residents, Greely Middle School student C.J. Bates was recognized for being a winner in “If I led my community …,” a statewide seventh-grade essay contest held by the Maine Municipal Association.
“I would run a well-organized town that provides services to all residents no matter how wealthy or poor,” Bates wrote. “I would make sure that no one goes hungry, and that all kids would have the chance to play sports. I would also make sure that all emergency operations would be running to keep the town safe.”