Town officials across central Maine are postponing Town Meetings and municipal elections scheduled to take place this month over concerns about coronavirus infection.

For Greg Couture, it’s a relief.

Couture, chairman of the West Gardiner Board of Selectmen, said Wednesday that the chief concern has been how his town, like others, could continue to operate in the event that residents are not able to approve a spending plan for the next budget year.

Newly enacted legislation allows town officials to continue to fund municipal operations at the same level that voters approved at the last Town Meeting if they are not able to hold a budget vote as planned.

The legislation also allows town officials to postpone the date of municipal secret ballot elections by posting notice in a public location at least two days before the election. They will be able to use the ballots already printed.

If budgets cannot be adopted by the time town assessors need to commit taxes, the law allows assessors to commit taxes based on the previous year’s budget levels.

Before the emergency legislation, town officials had little flexibility to reschedule Town Meetings and elections, and no provision to fund municipal operations without the annual townwide budget vote.

Town Meetings had been scheduled to take place this weekend in Belgrade, Pittston, West Gardiner and Whitfield.

Dresden has scheduled a special election for April 7 to choose someone to serve on the Board of Selectmen after First Selectwoman Trudy Foss steps down.

On Wednesday, Town Administrator Michael Henderson said that election is still expected to go forward as planned, but residents are encouraged to vote absentee. Arrangements to get absentee ballots can be made by contacting the Dresden Town Office.

In West Gardiner, Town Meeting traditionally takes place on the third Saturday of the month in the afternoon; the municipal election is in the morning.

West Gardiner Town Clerk Angela Phillis said they will be rescheduled at a later date.

In Whitefield, Lester Sheaffer, chairman of the Whitefield Board of Selectmen, said Wednesday that the board decided to postpone Friday’s elections and Saturday’s Town Meeting. He said the selectboard will meet May 26 to determine the new dates for those events.

Belgrade, which had a secret ballot election scheduled for Friday and an open Town Meeting on Saturday, has postponed both. In anticipation of the state Legislature approving a bill Tuesday night that allows towns to delay annual Town Meetings and elections, the Belgrade Selectboard voted Tuesday to postpone both to a date yet to be determined.

“The board is rightly concerned about the public’s health right now,” said Town Manager Anthony Wilson. “Gathering in groups, large or small, does not seem like a good idea right now.”

He also noted that if the town had opted to conduct its election and Town Meeting as planned this weekend, residents may have stayed away.

“It could have had a chilling effect, and people who normally would come out for Town Meeting may not have come,” Wilson said. “Tampening down of democracy is distasteful to us here.”

The selectboard will continue to meet every two weeks as scheduled — albeit maybe through video conferencing — and will decide when the election and Town Meeting will take place at a later date.

“All conventional wisdom says this will last a couple of months,” Wilson said, “so we’re kind of strapped in for the long haul.”

Belgrade’s ballot includes a contested selectboard race, the budgets of the Library and Recreation Department, financial requests from nonprofit agencies, and an ordinance to help the Fire Department recover some of the costs of its emergency responses. Absentee ballots may still be turned in to the dropbox on the north side of the Town Office at 990 Augusta Road. Absentee ballots will be secured until they are to be processed in conjunction with the next election date.

Pittston officials were expected to meet Wednesday to figure out the details of when to reschedule Town Meeting and its municipal election, which takes place on the Monday following Town Meeting.

“We are definitely going to vote on postponing,” Jean Ambrose, chairwoman of the Pittston Board of Selectmen, said. ” We might set a tentative date. We’ll also figure out what we’re going to do about office hours.”

The Pittston Town Office has been open to the public and maintaining regular hours, but that’s expected to change.

Washington Town Clerk Mary Anderson said the town’s March 27 and 28 elections and Town Meeting could be postponed Thursday after she discusses it with Maine Municipal Association and the town’s selectboard.

Kennebec Journal reporter Sam Shepherd contributed to this report.


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