News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, May 19, 2022
Two initiatives on removing snow from sidewalks crumble
Increased school budget approved unanimously

Macomber opens town meeting

Town Clerk Susan Macomber, standing at the microphone, opens Town Meeting on May 14, in the field house at Maine Maritime Academy.

Photo by David Avery Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by David Avery

Snow plowing begins where the sidewalk ends. That is what voters decided at Town Meeting May 14.

More than 100 people were present at the field house at Maine Maritime Academy for the annual exercise in direct democracy. The meeting lasted from 8:30 until 10:45 a.m.

Two initiatives concerning removing snow from sidewalks were on the warrant. Both were defeated after considerable discussion.

The first option presented voters with a private option for snow removal from sidewalks. It would have empowered the select board to amend the existing traffic ordinance to include requiring property owners to remove snow from sidewalks adjacent to their property.

The public option asked voters to approve spending up to $55,000 on equipment that the town public works department would use to clear snow from sidewalks.

School budget

In other decisions, the Adams School budget of about $1.646 million was approved without much discussion.

A separate article adding even more to that budget was also passed by majority decision without discussion. That article increased the tuition paid by the town to George Stevens Academy for Castine high school students by $1,700 per student, adding an anticipated $34,000 to the school budget.

In all, the school budget is up by more than 14 percent over last year. The biggest increases come from additional personnel to be hired. A full-time principal will replace the part-time principal currently at the school.

An educational technician will also be added to assist primarily with middle school math and science, bringing staffing more in line with that before COVID-19, according to literature provided by School Union 93 Superintendent Reg Ruhlin.

Town budget

A town budget of nearly $2.5 million was approved, as well. Some of the additional expenditures will require the property tax mill rate to increase to more than $13 per $1,000 valuation, according to town Finance Officer Karen Motycka. The current mill rate is $11.40.

Tax receipts also depend on the valuation of property in town. That won’t be known until July, Motycka said. The budget approved by voters Saturday represents an increase of about 6 percent over last year, she said.

Sidewalk saga

The months-long discussion of sidewalks and whether to clear snow from them in winter continued Saturday morning at the field house.

Article 58 would have allowed the selectmen to amend the traffic ordinance in such a way as to require property owners to clear snow from abutting sidewalks.

Many spoke against this proposal at past select board meetings and at a public hearing earlier in the year. The same was true at Town Meeting.

Local business owner Tony Politano wondered about the financial impact and the effect on town employees of enforcing such an ordinance. He also warned of legal costs going up, presumably if people choose to fight any enforcement actions.

Town Manager Shawn Blodgett explained how enforcement might work. Castine gets about 18 storms of 2 inches of snow or more each year, he said.

The hope is that property owners would voluntarily comply and remove snow after each storm, he said.

As for enforcement, he suggested that some municipal employee would spend about three hours after each storm checking on compliance. Perhaps the time commitment would go down as people learned how to comply, he said.

He said that such enforcement action would be more an administrative and scheduling issue than a financial one.

Any municipal employee is empowered to cite violations, he said. The details of penalties for noncompliance were not on the warrant Saturday and would be worked out by the select board if Article 58 were to pass, he said.

Article 58 was roundly defeated by voice vote.

An alternative to private property owners being responsible for snow removal from sidewalks is to have the town take on the responsibility, a public option.

At hearings earlier this year, the public option was discussed. Blodgett suggested that equipment and personnel would be needed to exercise such an option.

Article 21, which was approved Saturday, adds one half of a full-time person to the public works department, bringing the total number of employees to two. According to Blodgett, that expansion was necessary before a public option for snow removal could be enacted.

Article 59 addressed the equipment needed. It asked voters to approve $55,000 for Bobcat-like equipment to be run by public works employees.

Assistant Fire Chief Tom Gutow spoke in favor of the expenditure, citing the public safety issue of snow-covered sidewalks as a concern.

But others had different opinions. Politano and resident Brock Muir both worried about unbudgeted costs of maintaining the equipment and future growth of the cost of the operation.

A show of hands indicated that 60 were against the expenditure while 34 were in favor, essentially maintaining the status quo, meaning that there will be no snow removal from sidewalks in Castine in the near future.

Other outcomes

Other significant votes included empowering the select board to enter into a new lease agreement with as yet undetermined renters of the lighthouse residence. The lighthouse keeper’s house is owned by the town and rented as a residence. The current lease is up June 30.

Blodgett explained the necessity of revising the town’s solid waste ordinance, which is outdated. The last one was adopted in 1993 when the town operated a landfill, which it no longer does. The revised version was available at Town Meeting and was approved by voters.

School board expansion

An article to expand membership of the school board, or school committee, from three to five members, was narrowly defeated, 42 in favor to 50 against.

A petition with adequate verified signatures requesting the expansion was brought by Jessica Simmons, so the article was included in the town warrant.

Simmons spoke about her reasons for wanting to expand the board to five. She said Castine is the only town in School Union 93 that does not have five members.

She also cited the inclusion of more voices and greater diversity, as well as reduced workload per member, if the board expanded.

Simmons also recognized that people’s biggest fear is not being able to find five people to serve, but she advocated voting for what’s best and not out of fear of what might happen in the future.

Simmons is the wife of board chair Jake Simmons.

Newest school board member Kate Noel spoke from prepared notes on the subject. She was elected in November 2021.

She researched 20 years of Castine’s elections and found that only 11 of 68 races were contested. She took this to indicate that the status quo is serving the town well.

“What’s good for other towns may not be good for our town,” she said.

Board member Temple Blackwood agreed. “I do not see any value in adding members to the school board,” he said.

Jake Simmons, however, was in favor of the expansion, citing the workload and the idea that more voices means better representation of everyone.

Several comments and questions from the audience were entertained. Amy Gutow and Leah Tenney Keating wondered if a five-member board could function if it was not fully staffed.

Chad Davis asked how soon the membership could be changed if the expansion turned out to be unworkable. Town Manager Shawn Blodgett said as soon as the next election in November or certainly at Town Meeting in one year.

Lauri Lyman said that she has observed that the town is different now than it was 20 years ago. There are more young families, she said.

Of the expanded membership, she said, “Let it move forward. Let’s not vote down something based on ‘what ifs.’”

When the question was called, the nays carried the day.

Finally, voters had the chance to make Castine a dry town. That is, they could have voted down Articles 64 or 65, which gave the state permission to license establishments to sell liquor in Castine.

The vote was nearly unanimous, but there was at least one vote against liquor sales on Sundays.