WATERVILLE — Three city residents have begun collecting signatures to repeal the City Council’s override of the mayor’s veto of the city budget, aiming to reopen the budget process; but councilors, while hoping that residents take part in future public forums on the budget, are defending a “bare-bones budget” that if cut further will cut vital services and personnel.

At least one councilor is blaming the mayor for the divisiveness being sown by this most recent petition.

Eric Chamberlain filed an affidavit signed by him, Normand Veilleux and Henry D. Poirier with the city clerk’s office Friday morning, which begins the petitioning process. According to the clerk’s office, Chamberlain and his associates have until 5 p.m. July 24 to collect the 857 signatures needed from registered voters in the city.

Mayor Nick Isgro had said he would veto a budget that raised taxes more than 3 percent. To reach that 3 percent, $900,000 more would have to be cut from the budget. As promised, he vetoed the $41.9 million budget on June 21. The council overrode Isgro’s veto in a 6-1 vote on Tuesday.

Chamberlain wants the council to reconsider the budget and ultimately cut it. According to a news release sent out by Laliberte Strategies announcing the petition, “City councilors have failed to listen to pleas of residents asking them to make cuts in the budget.”

Ward 1 Councilor Steve Soule, however, sees the repeal effort as in line with the divisiveness that has wracked the city recently: “The new strategy over the past few years is to think petition if your views do not coincide with decisions. Will there be another petition in the upcoming months, as every decision has a losing side?”

Chamberlain, reached Friday afternoon by email, said he decided to start the petition after reading the news media coverage and listening to the council meetings, “where the City Council was not taking any of the citizens’ concerns or suggestions into consideration. The citizens need a voice, and if the council is not going to listen to the suggestions of the citizens, then it’s time for us to take a stand and have our voices heard.”

Chamberlain said he will be gathering the signatures himself with volunteers. He said all citizens are asking for “is for there to be common-sense cuts in the budget so citizens can afford to stay in their homes.”

Ward 7 Councilor Jackie Dupont was quick to defend the budget process, however, saying in an email that “the decision on the final budget was made thoughtfully and with much difficulty after 3.5 months of review and deliberation,” and that the budget “reflects cuts made across the board and is spending less than last year.”

Cutting taxes further “would require cutting programs and personnel, such as eliminating the fire department to create a volunteer fire service, cutting the police department and reducing paving and plowing,” Ward 6 Councilor Winifred Tate said, who noted in an email that “There are no easy cuts to be made.”

Chamberlain called himself “a concerned homeowner who lives in this great city and is tired of seeing the tax bill go up, up and up every year.”

If Chamberlain and his associates get all the signatures needed and they are certified by the clerk’s office, the city clerk then would present a certified notification to the council at the next council meeting. According to Deputy Clerk Sarah Cross, the council could vote to reopen the budget before Chamberlain gets all the signatures, but if Chamberlain does not get all the necessary signatures, the council would not have to act.

“I understand that no one wants to pay more in taxes and that it could be a burden on some families,” Ward 2 Councilor Nathaniel White said in an email, but he also noted the cost of more cuts: “If we cut more out of this budget, it will affect city departments and services. At what expense of Waterville will we continue to cut the budget? Waterville has a lot to offer, and if we continue to cut, it will affect all departments including the schools, public service (police and fire) and other important services like public works which maintains our roads in summer and winter.”

Isgro — who survived a recall by 91 votes but is sparing in his response to media inquiries — stated he saw multiple places that could be cut in the budget.

In the school budget, Isgro recommended cutting funding for all newly created positions, even though they are mandated by federal law or required because of the number of students, reducing the budget by $365,589. He also proposed reducing a 6 percent pay increase for school employees to 3 percent, though those increases are required by a union contract.

In the municipal budget, he recommended cutting $30,000 from the paving budget, which is funded through the downtown tax increment funding district, and $20,000 from the Fire Department, which would reduce part-time staff and training. He also suggested transferring $274,000 from the municipal pool fund to the general fund, eliminating plans to put in a new slide at the pool and possibly jeopardizing a $560,000 grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation.

White, however, points out that “The Waterville public pool is a place for families to go to be a part of a community and to cut those pool reserve funds means a less attractive pool for the City, which is something I will not agree to. The public pool has been a great facility in all its time in Waterville and it should be something that the residents of this community should be proud of.”

Further, the Ward 2 councilor blames the mayor for the continuing divisiveness in the city: “After the recall effort for the Mayor and the Ward 5 City Councilor we have become divided as a City. The Mayor only won by 91 votes, and I truly believe he is causing this city to become more divided now that the recall is over. It’s time to get over the recall, and move on and come together to work on making Waterville a destination for all to come and enjoy!”

On Friday, Isgro responded to the petition on his Facebook page, arguing that he warned weeks ago that the petition to reopen the budget process can be disruptive: “It prevents the budget from being implemented and could result in trying to operate Our City without a budget. Potentially, we could have to rely on emergency funds since a repeal also stops tax bills from being sent to residents.”

He then blames councilors for not working with residents on the budget more than they did.

“Sadly, the councilors chose not to act and instead they ignored residents,” Isgro wrote. “They decided to roll the dice with the city finances and push us towards a potential government shutdown in order to extract the big tax increases they desire.”

One point he and White agree upon. “As of right now, because this petition has been initiated, it is already affecting city business,” White said. “We now have to delay the tax bills from going out, and have to put a hold on hiring and spending which will affect the City of Waterville throughout this process, including our schools. At what expense do the tax payers that are leading this effort want to keep cutting the city budget? If we cut, we are talking about departments: like parks and rec, schools, fire departments, police department. We are talking about cutting city services!”

Jessica Laliberte, president of Laliberte Strategies, a Waterville-based communications firm and a member of the city’s Planning Board, initially told the Morning Sentinel that Eric Chamberlain, the ostensible leader of the petition effort to repeal the council’s override of the Mayor’s veto, would not be available for comment and that all media inquiries would have to go through her.

Laliberte, in a blog on her company’s website, takes credit for leading a similar effort to have the city reopen the budget in 2016.

Describing herself over the phone as a concerned citizen and small-business owner who is not being paid for her services, she said the repeal effort was not a personal attack on anyone.

“This is the citizens of Waterville making their voices heard after being ignored by the City Council,” she said.

In 2016, Isgro vetoed a $38 million budget, which the council voted 5-2 to override. The city’s tax rate was set to decrease by 24 cents under that budget, but some people’s taxes were due to increase because of the city’s recently concluded property revaluation. Councilors voted to re-open the budget before the petition to repeal the override and reopen the budget was finished circulating. They ultimately approved a $37.6 million budget.

Councilor Soule, however, wants to get beyond petitions. “Waterville needs to move in a positive direction,” he said.

It’s a viewpoint other councilors agree with.

“Keeping the city going means investing in city services and programs,” Councilor Tate said. “I believe the majority of Waterville residents feel the same.”

In the next year, the challenges facing Waterville and its residents will be tougher, according to Councilor Dupont. “We will be facing much larger and substantial changes that will impact our community in profound ways” she said. While she appreciates “citizens engaging in their democratic process to voice their disagreement,” she nevertheless hopes that “they will participate in the future public forums and public budget meetings to determine our priorities as a community. I hope they make their voices heard then and give us guidance on the difficult decisions ahead.”

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @colinoellis

 

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