OXFORD — Voters sent a loud message to selectmen at annual town meeting Saturday, June 10, by reducing the majority of the selectmen’s budget recommendations by 2 percent.
Some 100 voters and a dozen nonresidents packed the Oxford Elementary School cafeteria to act on the 32-article warrant, reducing many of the proposed budget lines by 2 percent and challenging the selectmen’s request to pay the $1.2 million – of a 20-year-bond for the town’s wastewater treatment plant.
The approved budget is about $53,000 less than the selectmen’s recommended $5.79 million budget – a 28.12 percent increase over last year’s approved budget. The exact impact of the increase will not be known until the tax is committed in August but based on the selectmen’s recommended budget, before the town meeting cuts, taxpayers will see a 9.74 percent increase, said Interim Town Manager Becky Lippincott.
Amendments proposed by voter Peter Cushman to reduce many of the selectmen’s budget requests by 10 percent failed in favor of voter Henry Jackson’s amendments to reduce many of the budget requests by 2 percent.
The Highway Department and Administration each took an approximate $13,000 hit, while the Fire Department was reduced by $10,000.
Newly-hired Fire Chief Gary Sacco promised voters he would conduct a careful review of the department’s equipment, put together a schedule for replacement and look at other areas that need to be addressed, such as lack of hydrants in some areas of town.
Voters chose not to cut the Police Department’s account after Police Chief Jon Tibbetts explained that the department already took a $35,000-plus reduction from last year’s approved budget.
“We’re as tight as we can make it and still provide the services we provide,” he said.
Other major budget articles that voters agreed to retain at the recommended selectmen’s recommended amount in addition to the $859,868 Police Department budget was $310,000 for the Rescue Department and $75,000 for the Fire Traffic Protection account.
Selectboard Chairman Scott Owens said the money for the $1.2 million payment is not coming out of the taxpayers’ pocket but rather from user fees and TIF money.
TIF money or tax incremental financing in Maine allows a town to define a certain area (in this case the Route 26 business district) as a TIF district. The local tax revenues generated by properties within this area are then dedicated to a specific project or economic development fund – in this case to the municipal wastewater treatment plant. Selectmen say that as the TIF area grows, it will offer continued tax relief to Oxford property owners.
There are currently only 22 users on the system, according to officials, but Owens said a user may represent more than one under a formula used by officials. For example, he said, a gas station might mean 2.5 users, the Casino Hotel, which has not yet opened is counted as 50 users as is the Hampton Inn, that came online in December 2016.
Residents are being asked to take advantage of a hookup incentive program and become user but many have balked saying their system is fine, so why tie in. A meeting was expected to be held on Wednesday June 14, to provide more information.
Officials had predicted that by the end of its first full year in operation, the project would provide 297 residents and 383 total users with “a safe, efficient and environmentally responsible way” to manage waste. Owens said the board hopes they will reach that number as early as next year but there is no way to tell for sure.
The $1.2 million includes $538,932 toward the bond payment and $448,923 toward long-term debt, plus money for the plant operations including two full-time employees.
“Ladies and gentlemen. This is the year we have to pay for it. We had an opportunity. We did it,” Henry Jackson said of the construction of the treatment plant.
If the payment is not made, town officials said the town’s credit rating would be ruined and the government could come in and take property to pay back the bond.
Three amendments put forth by voters to change the recommended $788,150 Capital Improvements Project account failed.
The Capital Improvements Projects account includes money for road work, including rebuilding Lake Street where sewer pipes are expected to be extended, two sections of Sam Hill Road, Hebron Road, and others.
It also includes $50,000 for the expected replacement of the Welchville Dam, which is failing. A special town meeting will probably be called later this year to raise and appropriate another $900,000 or so once project bids are available, said Lippincott.