Candidates face off over taxes, cruise ships, transparency
Rockland — The three candidates for City Council agreed property taxes are too high and proposed different solutions during a debate Oct. 17 at city hall.
Incumbent Councilor Larry Pritchett, former Mayor Harold "Hal" Perry and Louise MacLellan-Ruf of the Harbor Management Commission fielded questions from about 40 people who attended the event, which was moderated by Bangor Daily News reporter Stephen Betts. The candidates are seeking two open seats on the council this year.
Many of the questions they faced dealt with property taxes in Rockland.
"I believe all council members need to see clearly that the property tax rate in Rockland is high," Pritchett said. "And the gap between Rockland's tax rate and the tax rate of surrounding towns pushes people to look elsewhere to live and places a significant burden on the city's residents."
"That said, I also believe there is no reason for the people of Rockland to be drifting in a fog of dismay or negativity over the problems and challenges that lie before us," he said.
He argued recreational boating, tourism, commercial fishing and marine education are all bustling and the creative economy, including art and local food is drawing people to the area.
Challenger MacLellan-Ruf blamed city leadership for costly mistakes and shortsighted decisions.
"We are hemorrhaging money we just cannot afford," she said. "Over the past year, Rockland has been rife with short-sightedness. For example, the $15,000-plus spent for the speed bump that is now a pimple; $200,000 because no one expected to find fiber optics under a fiber optics building. The city now needs to find $70,000 to dredge the fish pier because of a short fix of dumping snow into the harbor."
The three candidates agreed during the forum that cuts could be made to the police department budget over time by not filling positions when people leave to retire. They also agreed, at least in concept, with an idea proposed by Perry of consolidating department head positions such as fire chief or public works director with a neighboring community.
Perry argued for a zero-based budget where all items have to be considered and re-evaluated each year. Perry said he goes through the budget line by line. He also urged residents struggling with their taxes to seek abatements, arguing 60 percent of homes in the country are over-assessed in property taxes.
Pritchett targeted the Recreation Department, which he said should be able to take in enough revenues to pay for its programs instead of costing the taxpayers. He said that department could become tax-neutral in two or three budget cycles. He also said the library budget should be looked at since it costs more than the library in Bath, which is similar in size.
He said the city has made strides in reducing energy costs and reducing the percentage it pays for employee health benefits.
Pritchett also argued the present City Council has shown a significant commitment to holding the line in the 2013 city budget, which did not raise taxes, despite cuts from the state.
He said the city should do a better job of marketing itself as a destination for hiking and outdoor/scenic tourism.
Pritchett advocated combining the solid waste and public works departments. The idea of consolidating their offices was part of a plan to build a new public works garage near the city transfer station off Pleasant Street. However, that plan has been postponed and residents will vote in November whether to build a sand and salt shed there.
MacLellan-Ruf argued the city should raise fees for services it provides, especially dump fees and the fees per passenger for visiting cruise ships.
Perry proposed providing an incentive for development of "old warehouses that we have" to entice businesses and suggested giving them "a kickback or something so that we can tear down those buildings and build up."
South End resident Patti Fletcher said five businesses have closed on Main Street due to ongoing construction and argued the new Wal-Mart will divert traffic away from Rockland's Main Street. She said recently she found Main Street empty, but a mega cruise ship was out in the harbor. She asked why cruise ships that use Rockland are allowed to bus their passengers to Camden.
Pritchett said he was not in town on the day the cruise ship was here recently, but he said he has been downtown during visits in the past to greet people and the ships brought in a lot of people.
He said he does not have a problem with a regional approach to economic development in the Midcoast. He said Rockland may be one stop, along with Camden and Owls Head.
MacLellan-Ruf argued the cruise ships have not been bringing in people to support the downtown.
She said Rockland has one of the lowest per passenger fees in the world for these ships.
"The city has left the community out of the discussion about this particular industry," she said of meetings of city officials in the past. "They have shut the doors."
The candidate said too much city business is conducted in closed-door meetings without allowing the public to participate. This was a theme she revisited throughout the debate.
"The city is excluding stakeholders from discussions that impact our economy and taxes," she said. "Special interest groups are given more consideration."
She said questions she has brought to the City Council have been met with a dismissive, arrogant response.
Perry said he was supportive of cruise ship visits due to the money they bring into the state and the community, though he said he did not believe Rockland needed to bring in the number of ships seen in Bar Harbor.
Adele Grossman Faber asked Pritchett how he could justify two raises to new City Manager James Smith in these economic times. Smith has received two cost-of-living raises along with other city employees.
Pritchett said that when hired, the city manager had a lower salary than the previous city manager and lower than Camden's and Rockport's town managers.
He said a base salary of $84,000 is unremarkable for a city this size.
MacLellan-Ruf said it was very confusing to her.
"I would love a job that every six months I receive a $2,000-plus raise," she said. "Because it was in the budget is not a good enough answer."
Faber also asked what happened with former Community Development Director Audrey Lovering? The city paid Lovering a total of $32,729 as a settlement when she resigned last year and has never released any information as to why.
"Everybody knows that personnel matters are confidential," Pritchett answered. He argued if everyone's personnel file was a public document, no one would work in city government. He said he was satisfied by the answers he received about this issue as an elected official.
MacLellan-Ruf said it was a very expensive learning experience and criticized the fact that everything was done in closed-door executive sessions. She said people did not want personnel details, but were asking why all of this money was being spent.
"Clearly something had gone down," she said.
She also criticized the city for giving the city manager a raise in the midst of that situation.
The candidates were also asked about the number of vacancies on city committees.
Pritchett said the committees are not working.
"You can go into a town park and you can ask a question," he said. "It might be a question for the Parks Commission, the Harbor Trail Committee, the Harbor Management Commission or the Recreation Committee."
He said the city has 40 committees with overlapping jurisdictions and they need clear direction for what they need to do and what they need to report to the council.
He said he has experience recruiting volunteers and it is very important they feel valued and their skill set matches the task.
MacLellan-Ruf said said she has seen disrespect shown to volunteers on committees when they are not in agreement with the City Council or city staff.
"People do not feel listened to," she said.
Perry said the council should look and see which committees have not been functioning. He said when he was mayor he held open house events at the library and City Hall to draw volunteers.
He said the council should listen to its committees and not put issues on a back burner to talk about later.
The candidates were asked about reports that city officials plan to move City Hall to the downtown once the existing building is paid off.
"The city hall story is an odd one because I honestly don't know where it came from," Pritchett said.
He said it was discussed during budget talks televised on cable TV as a possibility if the city relocated the public works garage. He said if someone wanted to buy the present City Hall once it is paid off to redevelop the 15 acres it is on and pay enough to fund a new City Hall, he would be willing to consider it.
He said he is not aware of anyone advocating moving City Hall. "It was simply an economic development question," he said.
He said he does not see it going downtown due to lack of an appropriate space and parking.
MacLellan-Ruf saw this as more closed-door discussions. "Apparently some discussion had been happening that we were not aware of," she said.
She opposed moving City Hall as costly.
Perry also opposed it, citing lack of parking and that the present location is working fine.
"If my house is paid for, do you think I'm going to go out and buy a new one because it's paid for?" Perry asked. "I don't think so."
Perry also argued the city should be careful about spending money just because some debt is being paid off.
He questioned where the money will come from to pay for closure of the landfill.
Courier-Gazette Editor Daniel Dunkle can be reached at email@example.com or 594-4401 ext. 122.
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Daniel Dunkle is editor of The Courier-Gazette and news director for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, who also works for Courier Publications, and two children.
Dunkle has previously served as editor of The Republican Journal in Belfast. He has worked as a reporter and photographer in the Midcoast for 15 years.
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