The Rockport Budget Committee has expressed concern about the process by which the town’s Select Board reached a budget decision.

At its March 30 meeting, the budget committee voted to support all parts of the Select Board’s proposed budget warrant for fiscal year 2010-11 except the articles for public safety, public works, and culture and recreation. In the public safety budget, there were two items that did not meet with budget committee approval.

“The budget committee and some members of the community were dismayed that, after many statements that the budget, including school and county, would have a zero percent impact on taxpayers, [the Select Board] had a 3.5 percent increase,” said budget committee Chairman Alex Arau on April 1. “Particularly after putting the town employees through that 0-10-20 exercise, it appeared the intent wasn’t serious.”

Arau was referring to a request from the Select Board to have department heads create three versions of the budget, showing cost reductions of zero, 10 and 20 percent, based on the 2009-10 budget. This was done, and on March 3 the department heads presented these three versions of the budget to the Select Board.

“We wanted to show how drastic the cuts would be and what services would be lost,” Select Board member William Chapman said. He said citizens could use the information to make cuts at town meeting, if that was their desire.

Chapman said the budget discussion that called for draft budgets showing cuts of zero, 10 and 20 percent was held so taxpayers could understand what sorts of cuts would need to be made if the local school districts did not keep their budgets down.

Budget committee questions phone vote

“It didn’t happen in a meeting,” Select Board Chairman Robert Duke said April 2, speaking of the decision to reinstate $9,000 in the public safety line to bring the Camden First Aid Association’s compensation to a total of $19,000. “We got a consensus individually from each board member by e-mail and some were phone calls. Actually, I sent the e-mail out to the board and I told them ‘that’s what I supported and if you guys want to change that let us know.'”

Duke’s request to the board came after Town Manager Robert Peabody received an explanation of the aid association’s ownership of a building and land on Long Lake in St. Agatha.

Select Board members had decided unanimously March 22 to cut the donation requested by the Camden First Aid Association, from $19,000 to $10,000, and to revisit that cut if the association produced compelling evidence to support its request before the board meets on April 12.

In an e-mail message, Camden First Aid Association President Chris Knight told Peabody the $19,000 requested was the amount needed to provide emergency medical services to the town.

“The word ‘donation’ that is being used to describe the fee for Camden First Aid services to the town of Rockport perhaps is not the best word,” Knight wrote. “This is the amount that we charge the town to have Emergency Medical Service coverage. We know the town cannot find a better price for these services anywhere; we are proud of that and work hard to ensure that it stays that way.”

He said the town of Hope averages about 40 calls a year and pays $2,000, Lincolnville pays $7,500 for an average of 120 calls, and Rockport pays $19,000 for an average of 310 calls a year. He said the service responds to an average of 525 calls in Camden each year, excluding those to nursing homes.

“Camden pays $10,000 plus $10,780 in real estate tax on personal property which would be in the thousands,” Knight said in his e-mail message to Peabody. “We also get fuel through the town which has a great value to us.”

He said in the event of a life-threatening emergency, Rockland Emergency Medical Services is the first responder for calls in the Glen Cove and lower Route 17 area. “This happens about 20 times a year with a cost to Camden First Aid of about $4,500 to $5,000,” Knight said.

Knight said the association had to write off $28,679 in 2008 due to patients’ lack of insurance and claims that insurance companies did not pay.

“During 2009 we struggled with watching that number soar to $110,256,” Knight said. “We suspect that number will be similar in 2010.”

In regard to the St. Agatha property, Knight said it was purchased after the association received a gift of stocks.

“After watching the stocks bounce up and down the membership decided to purchase a recreational property that would be an investment as well as a reward for the members who contributed to the service,” he said. “We have members who volunteer up to 1,500 hours a year of service. Giving them a place to relax one week out of the year seemed like a reasonable reward.” He said members who contribute to the service are allowed to use the property with their families for a week. The assessed value of the property is $87,000.

Knight, who has been the Camden First Aid Association president since 1989, said he is paid $31.32 per hour for acting as EMS chief and certified paramedic, and for running a billing service that bills for 15 other EMS agencies across the state.

In an e-mail message to Peabody, Select Board Chairman Duke requested that the funds be restored, prior to the budget committee’s review of the budget on March 30.

“I have surveyed all board members individually and we all concur that the $19,000 needs to be restored for the budget committee to vote on,” Duke wrote in a March 25 e-mail message to Peabody. “Please see that this is done before next week to avoid the re-vote later.”

“The Select Board had questions that weren’t resolved [during its March 22 workshop meeting],” budget committee Chairman Arau said April 1. “Peabody sent a list of questions. Chris Knight sent an answer and somehow the Select Board took a vote and added the money back in. But it wasn’t a public meeting.”

“It’s clear cut,” Arau said. “They haven’t met since [March 22] and managed to hold a straw poll vote and raised it $9,000. My understanding of public meeting access is it’s not legitimate. We were concerned with process.”

“In proper process [the budget committee] agreed that $19,000 is the number,” Arau said. He said the budget committee voted against the $10,000 presented to it after the March 22 meeting, and to support a 19,000 item in that line.

Duke said all of the Select Board’s budget votes had been straw votes and he thought the manner in which he polled board members would “simplify things for the budget committee and maybe save them from meeting one last time. I don’t see the budget changing, even with their recommendations.”

Select Board member Chapman said April 5 that the decision to return to the $19,000 figure had not been formally processed, but it was understood after the March 22 meeting that funding would be returned to the higher level if the Camden First Aid Association gave a satisfactory response to the board’s questions.

Select Board member Alexandra Fogel said April 6 that she was “very comfortable” with the decision to raise the appropriation to its previous level.

“I was for that before we took the vote for $10,000,” Fogel said. She said once Duke had the answers to the questions raised at the March 22 meeting, “it was totally OK. We said, in a public forum, that we were waiting for further information from Chris Knight.”

Select Board member Dale Landrith Jr. said he was satisfied that everyone who needed to be involved in the decision had discussed the matter, and a public meeting was not necessary for the board to change the appropriation figure.

On April 6, Select Board member Tom Farley said the decision to return to the higher appropriation was an informal one, and he was satisfied with the answers given by the association.

“We, as a group, look at value,” Farley said. “If the numbers don’t crunch out, we ask questions. When we saw what they offer us and the other towns, the comparable cost wasn’t a great deal for us.”

“I think everyone’s reasonably satisfied and that next Monday we will vote to raise it to $19,000,” Chapman said. He said he hadn’t yet seen the documents from the Camden First Aid Association, but Duke had told him what they said.

Tasers raise budget committee hackles

A request for $3,000 for equipment in the public safety budget also did not receive the committee’s recommendation. Arau said the rejection of funds for Taser weapons was based on concerns about the practical necessity of the conductive energy devices.

Between September 1999 and May 31, 2005, there were 118 unique proximity deaths of subjects of Taser activations, according to a document posted at the taser.com Web site.

Arau said the Rockport Police Department had only used pepper spray one time in the past 12 months. Police Chief Mark Kelley said officers use their defensive tools in the following order: hands-on, pepper spray, baton, Taser, and finally, firearm.

“Considering that’s the second line, it doesn’t appear that there’s a need for this,” Arau said. “We’re bringing a potentially lethal weapon in.” Arau said the committee thought the rest of Kelley’s request was responsible.

“They have no authority to recommend up or down,” Kelley said. “You can find statistics about anything.” He said there might have been underlying health issues among those who died as a result of exposure to Taser fire.

Arau said physical and mental illness, as well as certain drugs or diabetic coma could make a subject unresponsive to police.

“People who are unresponsive to police commands are potentially vulnerable,” Arau said. “Taser is losing lawsuits.”

“You’re not going to stop someone and ask if they have underlying issues,” Kelley said. “You take whatever means necessary to subdue them.” He said guns had been drawn by Rockport police officers in the past year, but had not been fired.

“I don’t believe that an officer would do anything that he had not at first thought out,” Kelley said. “These things happen in split seconds, at a faster than normal pace. We’re entrusted with guns to protect ourselves, and the public, from people that are doing wrong. Training and policy prevent mishaps from happening.”

Kelley said that in one instance, Rockport received assistance from a Camden officer with a Taser, and the presence of the weapon was enough to cause the subject to submit to arrest without further resistance.

Camden Police Lt. Randy Gagne said he had received more than 20 exposures to Tasers during training and had suffered no ill effects. “They are a deterrent,” Gagne said.

“I’ve been in Rockport 24 years, 14 as chief, and at no time have we had a lawsuit,” Kelley said of the liability issues. “This isn’t ‘Andy of Mayberry.’ We’re very conscientious of what we do.”

Committee recommends cut to public works budget

In its review of the 2010-11 budget, the budget committee also recommended that the road construction figure in the Public Works Department budget be reduced, from the $250,000 in the Select Board budget to $200,000. Peabody’s version of the budget called for $160,000, based on a request from Public Works Director Steve Beveridge for $187,500 for road construction.

“I’m more comfortable with that number than $187,000,” Beveridge said of the $200,000 figure. “We really need in excess of $250,000 a year to maintain Rockport’s roads. The zero-based budget has wreaked havoc with that.”

Arau said the budget committee also reviewed the appropriation for salt and sand, and after determining a consistent basis for measurement, affirmed the Select Board’s recommendation of $80,000.

Opera house funding mechanism questioned

Arau said the budget committee also voted to not recommend the appropriation for culture and recreation, where it refers to the Rockport Opera House.

“Normally we would offer a different number, but it was more of a philosophical issue,” Arau said. “We wanted the townspeople to see that there’s a significant problem.”

He said Select Board member Fogel told the committee that the $90,204 in the Select Board budget would only be a small portion of what is needed to maintain the building. He said the town needed a creative funding mechanism other than taxpayers coming up with the money.

“We’re telling town employees they won’t get a raise, and we have this huge expense from this building,” Arau said. “It’s been a long-term problem.”

“The opera house is an entity that we continue to maintain and heat,” Duke said. “It’s not going away. The townspeople are going to come out in huge support.” Duke said he disagreed with the budget committee’s action in regard to the opera house, which he referred to as a community building. “But I agree that we need to do a better job in how we fund it,” he said. “We need to promote it better. I’m pretty sure that Bob Peabody will make that happen.”

On April 5 Rockport Opera House Committee members John Priestley, Dave Jackson, Anne Kilham and Becky Gamage sent a letter of support to the town office, saying they wanted to remind the community of the opera house’s value to the town.

“During the school year hundreds of school children attend programs at the opera house,” the letter stated. “Many of those children would never be exposed to a cultural resource like it if this opportunity were not available.” The letter also noted that the library, Bay Chamber Concerts and the Odeon Youth Orchestra, local schools and nonprofit organizations as well as the Rockport Select Board and planning and zoning boards use the facility.

“It was never anticipated that the opera house, as a public building, would show a profit,” the letter said. “But we strongly believe that the opera house enhances the cultural life of the town. It is a cultural asset of the town along with the library, just as the harbor and town parks are recreational assets.”

The Rockport Select Board will make its final budget recommendations when it meets Monday, April 12 at 7 p.m. at the Rockport Opera House. If there are any changes contrary to those already discussed, the budget committee will review them Tuesday, April 13 at 6 p.m. in the Richardson Room at the town office. For more information, call the town office at 236-0806.

The warrant for the June 9 town meeting will show the Select Board’s final budget and state whether or not the budget committee recommends those amounts, Arau said.

“The amount cannot be increased [at town meeting],” Arau said. “It can only be decreased. Where it becomes tricky is people are unsure of how to do that. Last year there were amendments from the floor. Hopefully people will understand that they own the town meeting.”

The Herald Gazette reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.