Oakland’s town services are in danger, Town Manager Peter Nielsen says, and the culprit is public indifference.
Every year, the town’s affairs are held up for inspection and debate at Town Meeting, and at this year’s, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Performing Arts Center, attendees will vote on a budget of $4,327,438.
That’s an increase of about $84,000 over last year’s budget, but growth in the tax base means it will not result in any increase in the property tax rate, currently $13.80 per $1,000 of taxable property.
The tax rate could change based on the budgets of Kennebec County and Regional School Unit 18, which have not yet been finalized.
The outcome of Tuesday’s meeting will also determine community matters such as whether groups like the YMCA will lose funding, whether police training will be reduced, whether town employees deserve a raise and what roads will be repaired.
But the turnout at the annual meeting has plummeted from an average of 225 about 12 years ago to about 105 in recent years.
The lack of interest is frustrating, said Nielsen, because people are using municipal services more than they ever have. Town records show that the local fire department responded to 1,040 calls in 2013, an all-time high. A recent electronics waste collection at the town’s transfer station brought in about 400,000 cubic feet of material, enough to fill 70 large containers, another record.
And even those who don’t use those services drive on roads that are plowed by the public works department or benefit from safety gained when the police department shuts down a methamphetamine lab, as happened on Center Street in early March.
Despite this, Nielsen said, the overwhelming majority of the town’s 6,000 residents seem to take those services for granted.
If residents fail to express support for municipal services by coming to Town Meeting, it can lead to a worsening of those services.
“I would like to respectfully challenge the public to see if we could get 200 voters at this meeting,” Nielsen said.
This year, the value of municipal services was brought into sharp focus when Nielsen proposed pay increases totaling about $55,000 for eight of the town’s top employees. Nielsen said the hikes were needed to bring those employees up to 92 percent of the state average for those positions.
The Town Council cut the proposed pay raises in half, to about $23,000, part of the effort to maintain a tax-neutral budget.
Nielsen said he will revisit the idea of pay raises again next year.
“People who are doing above-average work ought to get at least average salaries and wages,” he said. “I won’t retreat from that position.”
Nielsen said not enough people are showing up at the town meeting to express their support for the services they receive.
Shawn Marquis, a former police officer and current real estate agent in the town, said he plans to attend Town Meeting.
“I know people complain that the taxes might be too high, but they don’t think about what they’re getting,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways. If you want quality, there is a cost associated with it.”
When only 100 voters show up at a town meeting, another decision made without much public input is how much to give to nonprofit groups.
Marquis said that while he supports funding government services, he doesn’t like the idea of tax dollars going to social service agencies. This year, 13 groups, including Kennebec Behavioral Health, Spectrum Generations and the Oakland Food Bank, asked the town for contributions.
“We can’t afford to do everything we’d like to do,” he said. “There’s just not enough money to go around for all the good causes. There never has been and there probably never will be.”
Nielsen said the funding the groups request is always a matter of debate among town officials and the public.
This year, the council helped keep the budget tax-neutral by slashing support to the groups, which also included the American Red Cross, and the Boys and Girls Club and YMCA.
In 2011, the total amount of funding for such organizations was $23,683. Last year, the council set a cap on requests of $2,000 for most organizations and reduced the total amount given to $22,650.
This year, the council cut the cap in half to a maximum of $1,000 per organization and is recommending total expenditures of $16,400, a reduction of 28 percent over a year ago and 31 percent over 2011.
The cuts save just a penny on Oakland’s property tax rate of $13.80.
Every dollar in property tax rate equates to $507,552 in revenue to the town. For a person paying $1,380 in taxes on a $100,000 home in Oakland, the amount spent on community services is currently about $4.46 and will be reduced to about $3.23, for a savings of $1.23 per year.
Marquis said he is opposed to the funding based on principle, not the effect on his own wallet.
“For the town government to dictate what groups to support, I have a problem with that,” he said.
Julia Colpitts is the executive director of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, which is affiliated with the Family Violence Project. Last year, the Family Violence Project, which works with the town’s police department and provides housing and advocacy services to victims of domestic abuse, received $2,000 from Oakland’s municipal budget.
Under this year’s proposed budget, that amount is halved to $1,000. Colpitts said she sees a statewide trend.
“All of the programs around the state have seen significant increased needs for services,” she said. “All of them have suffered decreases for funding, the Family Violence Project included.”
“It’s sort of like the death of 1,000 cuts,” she added.
Another group suffering a loss is the Hospice Volunteers of Waterville Area, which received $1,750 last year and will get $1,000 under the current budget. When an Oakland resident dies, the group contacts bereaved family members with invitations to join support groups and other services, a service partially paid for by tax dollars.
Susan Roy, the executive director, said the volunteer group, which provided services to more than 40 Oakland residents, including four grieving children in 2013, is grateful for any level of support.
“The people have always been wonderful,” she said. “Many of the people at town meetings have been touched by our services themselves.”
The hospice group runs on a total budget of $200,000, about 9 percent of which comes from municipal funding.
Debates about social service funding and employee pay raises are still continuing, but the voices on each side are growing fainter, Nielsen said. He thinks he knows why. The lack of participation, he said, is because a generation of residents who invested time and energy into creating and expanding the town’s current range of services is disappearing.
“The core group is aging out,” he said, “and they’re not being replaced.”