March 19, 2014LANCASTER— All business at the March 11 town meeting was completed in less than two hours. Voters agreed to every spending proposal, except the only article not defended by a speaker on the floor.
The evening kicked off when town moderator Jay Riff discussed the ground rules. He noted the importance of civil discourse. "We're all townspeople. We are all neighbors," he said, "Hopefully we are all friends."
A close vote occurred early in the night. Article Three requested $135,000 for eight different reserve funds, with the money to be raised through taxation. Joyce McGee rose to request an amendment which would have taken the money from the town's fund balance.
McGee said Lancaster's fund balance retention is about 18 percent of town appropriations, higher than the state's recommended level. Even if the $135,000 for Article Three came from fund balance, McGee said, Lancaster would retain about ten percent in fund balance, within the state's suggested level.
McGee said the town would be better off using fund balance, which she deemed "monies that have already been raised," rather than use new taxes for the reserve funds. The $135,000, she concluded, would mean the town's tax rate would be roughly unchanged, rather than rise 41 cents.
Town Manager Ed Samson confirmed that the town was retaining around 18 percent in its fund balance. He opposed McGee's amendment, however, saying the town has been using some fund balance. Additionally, he said the town's effort to realistically budget projected revenues might permit the use of fund balance later in the year to buy down the tax rate.
"I discourage the change in funding," Samson said, to sum up his opposition to McGee's amendment.
Chris Parker spoke in favor of McGee's idea. "If we can level fund our budget, this is a good start," Parker said in support of using fund balance, rather than new taxes, for the reserve funds.
As discussion wrapped up, Riff called for a show of shiny pink cards. The amendment failed on a vote of 41 in favor, with 48 opposed. The original article then passed by a comfortable margin.
After the Article Three debate, other matters proceeded at a swift pace. Each item on the warrant passed with limited debate, except for Article 22. Tri-County Community Action's request for $4,600 to support its Community Contact Division was soundly defeated. Some residents expressed disgust that the organization would ask for town tax dollars without bothering to have someone show up to speak in favor of the expenditure.
Even though requests for other social service donations received strong support, one resident spoke in opposition to all such expenditures. Henrietta Howard expressed concern about rising property taxes. "There comes a time when we must say no," Howard declared. "We need to vote no on every one of them to save our homes," she concluded.
Late in the meeting, voters soundly defeated two articles that looked to commit the town to certain viewpoints on policy. An effort to request greater oversight of the Portland Pipeline, including opposition to the transport of tar sands oil, lost by a large margin.
Additionally, the town rejected Article 28, meant to express disfavor with the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a U.S. Supreme Court decision rendered in 2010. The article, which was soundly defeated, would have declared that constitutional rights reside in human beings, not corporations, and that spending money is not protected speech.
Assistant county attorney Steven Murray said Article 28 was "really, really poorly phrased." He believed the principles outlined in the article would be "opening a Pandora's Box" because the government could "muzzle disfavored political speech."
Those hoping to cut taxes at town meeting may have walked away disappointed in the approval of all but one spending article. However, both McGee and Parker each gained personal victories. Both were elected to the budget committee, along with Allan Carr.