Freedom debates renting vs. buying

By Stephanie Grinnell | Mar 11, 2019
Photo by: Stephanie Grinnell Selectman Brian Jones explains a budget item during Freedom's annual town meeting March 9.

Freedom — About 50 residents spent a sunny Saturday morning inside Dirigo Grange in Freedom, taking care of town business during the annual meeting.

While a few expressed concerns about some areas of funding, the municipal budget was approved unchanged. Like many towns, education and public works dominated talks.

One woman asked if the town had taken into consideration proposals by newly elected Gov. Janet Mills — such as universal pre-K — and factored in higher local costs to compensate. However, Maine State Board of Education Chairman Wilson Hess, a resident of the town, said the state has already sent out its local share estimations and costs in Freedom will decrease.

“In terms of Augusta impact, it will reduce the mil rate by two-tenths of a percent,” Hess said.

Selectman Stephen Bennett directed attention to the Annual Report, which he noted contains charts by fellow Selectman Brian Jones comparing 10 years of budgets.

“We have tried to keep our (municipal) budget in line,” Bennett said, adding the school district costs are 70 percent of the overall budget and have the highest impact on property tax bills. “It’s hard to run a town with that much money leaving.”

An almost $14,000 increase in the general government budget was attributed to TRIO software upgrades and insurance costs.

The first real debate kicked off as voters considered purchasing a used excavator for the Public Works Department. Several residents spoke about an equipment-heavy Public Works Department and wondered if contracting services might be better in the long run. Bennett countered that long winters with a contractor could lead to unpredictable costs as well as unsatisfactory work.

“This leaves the town in control,” he said, later adding, “I honestly feel having our own road department gives us control and supervision.”

One resident said he is concerned about buying such a large piece of equipment used because many things are hard to evaluate.

“When you rent, if it goes wrong, they can have it back,” he said.

Selectman Ron Price, who was re-elected the day before at the polls, said he agrees used equipment can be a gamble.

“But our Public Works guys are experienced,” he said. “We would certainly be discerning on what we buy.”

He outlined costs in neighboring towns as well, making the point that Freedom’s costs are lower per mile.

“And we can control how it’s done,” Price said. “You can't just put somebody in a plow truck, they have to know what they’re doing.”

Still, one resident lamented, “I have a hard time believing we are using our Public Works 100 percent.”

Price said there may be opportunities to share or loan equipment to other towns as well.

“Knox is really struggling with their road program down there,” he said.

The article, seeking approval for a loan to purchase an excavator and trailer for an estimated $50,000 to $60,000, was approved by a margin of two to one. Exact numbers varied as the lighting in the room interfered with visibility, Moderator Walter Whitcomb noted. Selectmen clarified that a line in the Public Works budget showing $10,000 for excavator rentals would instead be used to pay the loan on the new purchase.

There was a short debate regarding the property tax due date as well. This year, Jones said, selectmen chose a specific date on which interest begins to accrue — Oct. 1, 2019 — rather than the traditional 60 days from when the tax bills are mailed.

“Regardless of when the tax bills come out, the interest starts Oct. 1,” he said.

Some residents were concerned that bills could be mailed late into September and that setting a specific date for interest might harm them.

“I don’t think we’re going to wait any longer than we have to, because we need the money,” Bennett said. Whitcomb reinforced the statement a few articles later after residents agreed the town could accept prepayment of taxes: “They’ll take your money any time.”

As is also common in many other towns, residents questioned funding requests from social service agencies — at total of $13,151 this year. Price said each agency provides a breakdown based on services provided to town residents and said, “They are scrutinized.”

Fire Chief James Waterman, who was re-elected during the meeting, noted Freedom is currently responding more to neighboring Thorndike. That town's department lost most of its members recently to resignations.

"But we're working to reconstruct (the department) and recertify (equipment)," Waterman said, adding Montville Fire Chief John York inspected each of Thorndike's fire trucks to be sure they're safe. "Though old, they still function."

Near the end of the warrant, voters approved no money for Freedom Post Office — the town owns the building and is paid rent by the postal service, Bennett said. There have been a few repairs in the past two years, "but, yeah, it's making money for the town," he added.

In slightly less than two hours, residents finished approving the town budget and adjourned downstairs for the traditional after-meeting lunch.

 

Maine State Board of Education Chairman Wilson Hess answers a question at Freedom's annual town meeting March 9. (Photo by: Stephanie Grinnell)
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