WISCASSET, Maine — In 1998, still flush with tax money from the Maine Yankee atomic power plant — which had closed two years earlier — Wiscasset opened a multimillion-dollar community center just outside the heart of town.
Now, almost 20 years later, the center remains open, but the community it is serving in this coastal town, billed as “the prettiest village in Maine,” looks like it’s lost its way.
Municipal government is wracked by turmoil, with elected officials resigning, a citizens group aggressively challenging selectmen’s decisions, and basic policy matters decided by petitions and referendum.
A school system that routinely turned away tuition students because it ranked among the best in Maine now struggles with massive enrollment declines, annual budget travails, and questions about its leadership and direction.
Meanwhile, an agreement between state and local officials to try to resolve a traffic bottleneck on Route 1 — after half a century of negotiations — has drawn organized opposition, legal warnings and a petition.
How did Wiscasset reach this point?
Many residents see it as the inevitable fallout from the nuclear plant’s closure. Others see it as a cautionary tale for other Maine communities, such as mill towns, that struggle to adapt when a seismic change occurs to its economic base.
From boom to the edge of bust
For awhile during the quarter century Maine Yankee generated power on Bailey Point, Wiscasset residents — many of them power plant employees who drew an average salary of $54,000 — didn’t even pay for their own utilities.
In 1996, when the plant shut down for good, Maine Yankee paid the town nearly $13 million in property taxes — about 91 percent of the town’s entire tax base, according to tax records.
Former Selectwoman Judy Flanagan, a longtime resident of Wiscasset and a vice chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen until resigning in November, remembers the envious reactions when she told people she lived in Wiscasset.
“Every town would like to have had that pocketbook we had,” she said in an interview.
Two decades later, Maine Yankee’s employees and much of its tax base are long gone. The burden of struggling to live with a slimmer pocketbook has frayed many in a town that longtime resident Bill Sutter said “has developed a big city attitude, with big city amenities and budgets, when we are in fact a small town.”
Town facilities have not been upgraded, or in some cases maintained, since the Maine Yankee years. Most notably, a failing sewer plant has violated environmental standards for a second time, this year triggering fines of nearly $20,000. The plant also will need repairs that could easily reach $100,000, according to information provided by town officials.
Enrollment in Wiscasset schools has plummeted from about 950 in the late 1990s to 554 last year, according to the school department. Despite costs both financial and otherwise, the town voted to withdraw from its regional school district to maintain local control.
Poverty has increased, as have tensions among residents who have battled fiercely this year over one issue after the other, including asking voters to cast ballots in November to decide whether firefighters could continue washing their personal trucks at the station. (They can).
A slippery slope?
From 1972 to 1996, Maine Yankee, Maine’s only nuclear power plant, generated 119 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. By 1987, just before a third failed referendum on closing the plant and long before equipment failures and a series of outages would eventually trigger its shutdown, the plant was producing a quarter of the power for the state of Maine, the New York Times reported.
As the kilowatts increased, the town flourished during what are now known as “the Maine Yankee years.”
The schools, which according to the New York Times spent $12,000 per student, “had at their disposal about everything they could want,” said Bill Cumming of Wiscasset, who served as principal of Wiscasset High School from 1970 to 1992.
While officials were “conservative,” Cumming said Wednesday that the abundance prompted talk of creating an “academy” with other towns “to share the wealth with other schools.”
“They really seemed to get anything they wanted,” Cumming’s wife, Joan Cumming, added.
But in 1999, after paying nearly $13 million in property taxes the previous year, Maine Yankee’s taxes fell to less than half that amount.
By 2013, Wiscasset ranked as the fourth-poorest community in the state, the Boston Globe reported at the time, and property taxes had increased more than tenfold.
In October, residents opened their property tax bills to find a 14.1 percent increase over last year alone — an increase that would have been 22 percent had selectmen not voted, narrowly and against the advice of the town’s auditor, to spend $600,000 from the town’s reserve funds to mitigate the increase.
The decision to do so was not without controversy, with some arguing that relying on savings is a slippery slope.
“What about next year?” said Sutter, who has lived in Wiscasset for about 70 years. “Next year, those funds aren’t going to be available, and they’ve already voted to have a flat budget next year, which is based on the [originally proposed] 22 percent increase this year. And you have no money to go over any of your budget [items] for this year. Suppose we have a disaster or a hard winter. We have no money.”
How to pay future bills is on the minds of many these days, but the specter of Maine Yankee lingers.
“The Maine Yankee appetite is still there, but the Maine Yankee tax income is not,” Sutter said recently.
“There are real needs,” Flanagan said. “I have said that, even a little during the Maine Yankee days, we haven’t been good in maintaining, and it ends up costing us more to fix the infrastructure.”
Knowing that it would likely increase property tax rates, townspeople voted in 2013 to withdraw from Regional School Unit 12, a decision most say was prompted by a desire for local control, but one that cost the town more than $3 million, including $2 million to be paid back in 10 annual installments of $228,000, the first due this year.
In addition to the financial burden, withdrawal has had other costs: Years of plummeting enrollment led the town to close its primary school and reshuffle all students into the former middle and high schools.
The impact on Wiscasset’s sense of community is evident. School athletic teams — known as the Redskins until being changed by a 2011 regional school board vote that still prompts fiery debate — have dwindled to the point that the middle school had no baseball team for two years and only six high school students expressed interest in a team, the Wiscasset Newspaper reported.
Bickering in public
The pressure of learning to live with less has prompted formerly noncontroversial issues to bubble over into public spats.
Several times, most recently last year, Wiscasset selectmen have asked voters if they wanted to eliminate the town’s Police Department and rely on county and state police. Each time they have opted to keep the force.
In November, after months of rancor, residents voted nearly 2-to-1 to again allow the town’s volunteer firefighters to wash personal vehicles at the station. The longtime tradition had ended in April after the town said it violated policy, but firefighters, led by Chief T.J. Merry, petitioned, arguing that they frequently went to fires in their own trucks, and that the perk was a small price to pay for their service.
Despite an opinion by the town’s attorney that the practice could make the town liable for any injuries, voters agreed with the firefighters.
No long after, Tim Merry, a former selectman and former fire chief, proposed eliminating the town manager position and returning to a town meeting or town administrator form of government. Merry told the Lincoln County News that Wiscasset is “a small town with a big-town spending problem.”
Just this week, after a vote to approve a $1.75 million energy project for the town’s schools, a school committee member spoke out about “unfair allegations, untrue statements and, frankly, some bad political theater” directed at Superintendent of Schools Heather Wilmot earlier this month during a meeting of the selectmen, the Wiscasset Newspaper reported.
But the most high-profile drama this year involves a proposed $5 million traffic-easing project designed to clear Main Street traffic that each summer creeps up and down a section of Route 1 as slowly as the line at nearby Red’s Eats. The plan includes installing several traffic lights and eliminating on-street parking along Main Street.
A group of residents, led by Sutter, have organized as the Wiscasset Taxpayers Alliance to oppose the project, which voters selected from three options at a nonbinding June vote.
Sutter said that vote was poorly managed. Furthermore, he said, the plan has changed so substantially that the nonbinding vote should be invalidated.
In early September, residents learned that although the plan they voted to support was pitched as almost completely federally funded, with the final $1 million paid by the state, the Maine Department of Transportation will instead use the $4 million in federal funding slated for the Wiscasset project on other projects.
The news prompted some to feel hoodwinked. Others, such as Sutter, suggested the switch is an attempt to skirt federal laws designed to protect historic and environmentally sensitive areas, such as the 1916 Haggett’s Garage and the Creamery Wharf — both initially proposed to become parking lots.
Department of Transportation project manager Ernie Martin said that he still planned to “follow a federal-like process” and would “try to meet all the needs to not impact this section of town as far as historical integrity.”
Flanagan said she’s confident the town’s historic preservation committee will protect the town’s properties, but residents must be ready to compromise.
Still others object to what Sutter estimates would be about $40,000 in maintenance costs the town would end up paying.
“Wiscasset does not have a traffic problem,” Sutter said recently. “The people who wish to get through have a problem and the state of Maine has a problem in that Wiscasset is a bottleneck … and they have an obligation to get traffic through it.”
The traffic-easing plan’s impact on downtown businesses also drew criticism.
“I have a lot of older patrons,” R. Keith Rendall said Thursday from his Main Street art gallery. “If they have to park two blocks down and walk up, they just will not do that.”
“For my business, I can’t imagine more growth in the summer,” Stacy Linehan, who has owned the popular Treats upscale bakery and deli for 11 years, said Thursday while looking out over an icy town. “We struggle to keep up as it is.”
Linehan, who lives in nearby Westport Island, said she was drawn to the area more than 20 years ago because it was “quaint and cute and clean and a safe place for my children.”
Although growth is inevitable, she said, “It’s important to protect the integrity of the villages in Maine. People want it to be like it was 100 years ago, and towns do have to be really mindful of how we grow.”
Still, despite vocal opposition and several letters from an attorney representing a large downtown property owner warning that any such vote would be illegal, the Board of Selectmen voted to authorize Town Manager Marian Anderson on Nov. 15 to sign a letter of intent to move forward with the Department of Transportation project as endorsed by the nonbinding vote.
The Wiscasset Taxpayers Alliance has initiated a petition to ask residents to invalidate the June vote.
Hope amid the stress
The same night the board voted to approve a letter of intent, and shortly after being appointed to an advisory committee to the project, Flanagan resigned from the Board of Selectmen.
While Flanagan said recently that she resigned for personal reasons, including wanting to spend time with her 4-year-old grandson, she acknowledged that her 18 months on the board were “very stressful.”
“Life is too short to be stressed,” she said. “We are having issue after issue. I know other board members have been as frustrated as I am. … You’ve got to disagree without being disagreeable. I don’t want to single us out — we are probably no worse [than other towns] — but it’s what I’ve had to deal with, and I just think it’s ridiculous to not be able to talk and listen and understand each other.
“It’s been a real adjustment for those people who have been here, and even some who moved here because of the low tax rate,” she said of tax bills that in some cases jumped from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. “They’ve had to adjust to what I call ‘What everyone else is paying around the state.’”
While the power plant’s financial impact is greatly diminished, a stark reminder of Maine Yankee’s indelible link to Wiscasset remains in the form of 550 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel still stored in 60 airtight steel canisters encased in concrete stored in at its Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation near the site of the former reactor. Maine Yankee has been in litigation with the federal government since 1998 over the government’s failure to meet legal obligations to remove and dispose of the spent fuel. Many locals say they don’t hold out much hope the waste will ever be moved.
But Flanagan, a librarian, said recently she’s optimistic about the future of Wiscasset, which she said is poised to “bounce back.”
She noted that even with the recent increase, and despite such amenities as an airport and a community center, Wiscasset’s property tax rate is still $18.71 per $1,000 — far from nearby Brunswick’s at $29.35 per $1,000, for example.
But Flanagan is confident that Wiscasset will work through its growing pains and move forward. She even alluded to “some things in the wings that I can’t talk about — but that have potential for the economy here.”
“I am very optimistic that this town is on the rebound,” she said. “I’ve seen it over the last several years. If you look at our downtown, we used to have empty shops, and we don’t now, and we’ve got a chamber and good businesses down there. As much as we locals hate to admit it, we are becoming a tourist town, but we have such potential between our waterfront and our historic village and our airport and our community center. We have a lot to offer. I think you’re going to find that we are bouncing back.”