YORK, Maine — Members of Think Again burst out in applause Monday night after selectmen agreed to take $25,000 from their contingency account to prepare to take on the Maine Turnpike Authority at an upcoming state hearing on the York toll plaza.
But Town Manager Steve Burns stressed it’s only a first step, and that when all is said and done, the cost to put up a spirited defense could top as much as $50,000.
At issue is a Maine Department of Environmental Protection decision to hold a public hearing on the toll plaza. The department has stated that the town raised enough “credible conflicting technical information” about the plaza to warrant a hearing.
The town has long held that the Maine Turnpike Authority has not provided enough evidence against the viability of a cashless, or all-electronic, tolling system. Instead, it’s building a plaza that includes electronic and cash booth tolling. The Department of Environmental Protection agrees that the town has made a cogent argument that deserves further exploration.
Burns told the board he has recently spoken with the town’s toll plaza attorney, Scott Anderson of Portland, about the costs of mounting a viable defense at the public hearing. Anderson said legal fees would top $25,000, with up to another $25,000 for expert witnesses. The hearing is not like a typical public hearing, said Burns, but is more like a court hearing with testimony given.
The selectmen are facing certain constraints as to how much money they can put toward the effort right now, said Burns. While they can take money from their emergency contingency fund, further funding has to be approved by the voters. That would mean a May vote and release of funds in July.
The problem, said Burns, is that the Department of Environmental Protection will likely hold the hearing in March, and Anderson said department officials are not likely to postpone it.
“The good news is, we got a hearing. The bad news is we got a hearing,” he said.
Many Think Again members urged selectmen to allocate $25,000 to begin the legal process.
“This is the ninth inning of the game, and it would be a tragedy to forfeit it now,” Marshall Jarvis said in a written statement. “It is critical that the town find the funds to appear before the [Department of Environmental Protection]. It would be a major mistake to handcuff us at this point. It would be limiting our efforts and will send a strong signal to the [Maine Turnpike Authority] that we are not really serious.”
Rep. Lydia Blume, D-York, also said in a written statement that the hearing is “critical. We need to continue to fight, as we will all have to live with the results for the next 40-50 years. Either we fight, or we recognize we have given up on this.”
Before voting to expend the $25,000 — which leaves selectmen with only $20,000 left in contingency for the remainder of the fiscal year — selectmen made a couple of points very clear.
They want the town’s legislators to “start fighting for the town of York” and seek a postponement of the hearing until after July 1, as Mike Estes said.
“Let’s see if they can’t use their political muscle to fight back,” said Robert Palmer.
Secondly, they want Think Again to raise money for the legal fund.
“They’ve been our partners right along, and they need to continue to be our partners,” said Palmer.
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