Unity debates, approves nonprofit donations, TIF study at town meeting
UNITY — At the annual town meeting, about 75 Unity residents approved most of the articles in the town warrant as written, with amendments to the placement and wording of the article pertaining to property tax levy limit — correcting an error in how the limit had been calculated in the past — and to the amount to be raised through taxation for the cemeteries budget, and with discussion around donations to nonprofits and funding for a study of how to best allocate Tax Incremental Financing funds.
Early in the meeting, Article 5, which dealt with the property tax levy limit, was amended to be moved to after Article 37, the final appropriations article. Moderator Don Newell said it would be better dealt with then when the budget amount in question would be known. He also said another amendment to correct a “scrivner’s error,” or clerical error, would be proposed at that time.
Article 6, on allocating $12,000 of Tax Incremental Financing funds to study the TIF, was then discussed. Noreen Norton would be hired to consult with the Unity TIF Advisory Committee to identify ways to best use the TIF funds, and to increase commercial investment in the community. She has been reviewing the existing program, which she says is "complex in two ways: procedurally and allocation-wise" for the town.
Norton spoke to the residents. “My personal goal for the town," she said, "would be that within 5 years, to decrease by 10 percent the portion of property taxes that are paid by residential tax payers and increase by 10 percent the percentage of property taxes that are paid by commercial investment in the town.”
A resident raised the concern that this would bring too much business into Unity, making it "another Waterville," and another questioned where the TIF money has been going since it was established in 1997.
Selectman Clement Blakney answered that currently one third of the yearly funds go to the Fire Department, and the remaining two thirds go to Unity Barn Raisers (UBR) for economic development of the town of Unity.
Several members of UBR then spoke about how the organization has spent TIF funds and grant money over the years. John McIntire pointed to Triplet Park, the Community Center, and many buildings in town UBR purchased, paid taxes on, rehabilitated and resold, as improvements UBR has made to the town of Unity. Dave Smith gave some examples of community and economic development programs UBR has been involved in such as Veggies for All, and health and wellness programs including the community gym which is available for community members, community meals and community trails. He noted that they also obtain federal and state dollars for programs that benefit Unity.
Norton said, "To date [TIF funds] been automatically been spent in a set way. This process is to get us to a place where it’s deliberate and it’s thought out and it’s making the most out of every TIF dollar we have available... It may include programs of the UBR, or it may include other programs completely. The key is to be in the best interest in advancing and improving the economic well being of unity."
Article 6 passed as written.
An amendment was made to Article 22 changing the amount to be raised through taxation for cemeteries for the ensuing year. It is mandated that veterans' stones need to be repaired, but there are other accounts that may be used for this purpose and half of the interest of the Perpetual Care Fund can be taken out. Though there will be the expense of surveying additional land in the near future, Selectman Penny Picard-Sampson, who is also on the cemetery committee, said sales of plots will replenish the funds by the time the survey needs to be done. The committee found that it can use $5,100 from those sources, so the amendment reduced the amount to be raised from $17,334.26 to $12,234.26.
Picard-Sampson spoke to the town about a change in the nonprofit donation articles. She said each nonprofit donation was listed in it's own article so each can be carefully considered individually.
"Now is the time that we’re looking at the money we are donating versus the money that we need to work on our roads. These do add up, and this year’s total is in the $18,000 range." Picard-Sampson said. "Everyone has the opportunity to make donations out of their own pockets to the charities of their choice. So I suggest we look at the money we’re giving away in donations instead of money we can be using for our important needs right now which are roads."
However, none of the allocations to nonprofits were reduced.
An amendment was proposed to reduce the amount raised for New Hope for Women from $830 to $140, which failed. The town approved the requested amount of $830.
An amendment was proposed to Article 36 to reduce the amount to be raised and appropriated for Waldo County Action Partners from the requested amount of $9,873 to $2,099.
WCAP Transportation Director Edward Murphy spoke to the town: “We provided services to 282 Unity people this past year. We spent $387,000 last year in Unity. The home heating assistance program alone saved your city $69,000 last year because our agency is in existence. We give 1,800 food baskets at Christmas and thanksgiving without any state or federal money."
He said the transportation programs can’t function without matching funds from the community and that the Department of Transportation wants to have towns that don’t contribute not to be served.
"We ask for 2 percent of the services delivered to the community and 3 percent for transportation,” he said.
A question was raised whether private donations can count toward matching funds, and Murphy said they could. Some residents argued that residents could help their neighbors with transportation needs, donate Christmas baskets through other programs and contribute to Warm Waldo instead of to WCAP which has administrative costs.
A motion to vote on the amendment by secret ballot was defeated, as was the amendment. The town approved the full amount requested.
Once the appropriations articles were passed, the town considered the property tax-levy limit, Article 5. Newell explained that the tax-levy limit article had been worded incorrectly in previous years, using the term “exceed” rather than “increase,” which meant that the levy limit increases were not used in the calculations of the next year's levy limits. Thus a year's increase figure could actually reflect the increase over a two-or-more-year-old limit.
The Maine Municipal Association's Municipal Officer's Manual states that M.R.S.A. Section 5721-A, sometimes referred to by its 2005 legislative document number "LD-1," requires a municipal commitment to be less than the calculated levy limit unless the legislative body has authorized the limit to be exceeded or increased. “The limit can only be 'exceeded' on a one-time emergency basis, where unexpected circumstances require increased expenditures,” it stipulates, “... It is not appropriate to exceed the levy limit where the excess is caused because the typical budget articles just add up to too high a number.”
The manual also states that a vote to exceed is only effective for the current year, meaning future levy limits will be calculated from the prior year's unexceeded levy limit rather than that year's actual municipal commitment.
In response to a question about what the percent increase would be, Newell said the increase in the total budget is $66,564 or a 6.4-percent increase, and the increase in the amount to be raised for the municipal budget is around $64,000, or a 33-percent increase. The selectmen explained the reason for the increase is that last year they were able to take $103,500 from surplus, and that this year there are additional payments due such as a Town Office payment.
The growth factor the state uses to calculate the tax levy limit is 1.0220, or 2.2 percent. Newell said, "In the budget, a high proportion of budget is roads. Do you believe the growth rate for roads is 2.2 percent? Not even close. That is why we surpass the limit."
The article passed 39-12 in a written ballot, and the meeting adjourned at 2:09 p.m.