Rockport is at a crossroads, both literally and figuratively.

While we sit at the junction of most of the major roads in the Midcoast region, we also sit at a junction regarding what the town will look like when the State of Maine celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2020. Will we be a town that embraces change and molds it to the unique character of our collective personality? Or, will we be one that only looks backward toward a town that holds little hope for the future of our children?

I believe we should be looking forward. Change is inevitable and we can embrace it and make it work for our benefit or we can deny that it is coming and be like King Canute trying to command the tides to cease and desist.

One of the issues currently dividing us is the proposed development program for the Downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district. Those of us who are supporting this program are in favor of looking ahead and, by doing so, agree that it is a wise financial decision. We will be putting aside a little money today for a large benefit tomorrow. Those who oppose the TIF argue that the money should go to immediate property tax reduction of a few pennies on an average Rockport home while ignoring the impact when the large bills come due in the future for Opera House improvements or rebuilding the harbor seawall, which will add dollars to the average property tax bill.

The TIF is, in essence, a reserve fund. An example of how this works can be seen in project to extend the sewer line to the Public Works facility on Elwood Street. The estimated $140,000 cost for this project is coming out of the Commercial Street TIF and not from a property tax levy.

Another area where we can look forward to is our town staff. We are fortunate to have a well-trained, highly-motivated staff with years of experience. Some have suggested that we drastically reduce staff or outsource selected functions. Their argument is that we don’t need to have responsive service. In their minds, waiting several days for an answer to an assessment or ordinance question should be an acceptable level of service or we can accept roads where snow and ice is allowed to build up while less frequent plowing is performed. I believe that we have a right to expect quality work from a responsive staff and have worked to maintain that level of service.

During the past year, while I have served as chairman of the Select Board, I have taken the time to meet with as many of our employees as possible. I have sat down with each of our senior staff, with the knowledge and permission of the town manager, to listen to their concerns and the concerns of their subordinates. Our employees are, more often than not, the face of the town that visitors and residents see. While most of us in Rockport seldom deal with any of the employees except those in the clerk’s office, we all see the work they perform, from Abby down at the harbor to Kevin and Russell and the rest of the Public Works crew, to Dan and Wes in the patrol cars and Chief Woodward’s volunteer fire department. While we all hope we don’t need the services of our police and fire departments, it is a relief to know they are there and I, for one, wouldn’t want it any other way.

Another initiative I have pushed while serving as the chairman of the Select Board was to get the town’s elected Budget Committee more involved in the financials of the town. When I was the Budget Committee chairman for the 2007-2008 fiscal year, Robert Nichols, then chairman of the town Select Board, went to the town attorney to get a ruling that the Budget Committee could only be involved when the budget was being discussed. At the time, I felt Nichols’ action was short-sighted, so when I took over as chairman last June, I began extending invitations to the Budget Committee, through Alex Arau, the chairman of that committee, to attend several of our early budget-related discussions and provide comments and helpful direction to the Select Board and town department heads. In my view, this has worked extremely well and resulted in a smoother budget review process. That’s not to say there were no disagreements, because there were several; but, overall, we all came away with a better understanding of the concerns of the other group.

To be perfectly clear, I need to point out that Nichols served on the Select Board from 2005 to 2008 and as its chairman from June 2006 to June 2008. He is running for one of the two seats that will be elected on June 14. I should also point out that Bob failed to mention his candidacy in his column that appeared in the April 27 edition of the Herald-Gazette.)

We have just gone through a rough time with the argument over whether to renew the Town Manager’s contract or to allow it to expire at the end of June. This is an issue that needs additional work. Before Nichols became chairman of the Select Board in June 2006 the Town Manager was formally evaluated every year, thereby ensuring the town was getting its money’s worth. When he took over as Select Board chairman in June 2006 the formal evaluation process was replaced with an informal one where goals weren’t set and agreed to and where the review of the Town Manager’s accomplishments were handled haphazardly.

Immediately before our ill-advised actions regarding the Town Manager’s contract on April 11, I had introduced an effort to reinstate the formal process. Since then, I have put many hours into developing and revising a formal evaluation from that I sincerely hope we will have agreed to before Town Meeting on June 15 so it can be implemented when Peabody’s new contract goes into effect on July 1.

When I was elected to the Select Board in June 2008, I requested we hold a goal setting workshop where each member of the Select Board would lay out his or her goals for the coming year. We then voted on each of the goals to determine our collective priorities for that year. This has worked quite well as it has given the town manager a better understanding of what the Select Board, as a whole, wants done. Going forward, in the town manager’s evaluation process I am proposing to the Select Board, I have included the use of these goals as a significant item for evaluation of the manager’s performance.

Among the goals the Select Board has proposed over the last three years were a few that were long-range in nature: an example of this is the survey each of us received a week or so ago. That is part of the Municipal Performance Measurement Program or MPMP, which we all agreed would have great benefit to Rockport. I am not claiming this was my idea, but I fully embraced it as did everyone on the Select Board. The MPMP is a series of measurements of town services and each town department has its own set of unique measurements by which its effectiveness can be judged. And, when applied over a number of years, we can see if the increasing costs of a particular service has resulted in a better delivery of the service.

Of course, everyone looks at the cost of town government. After all, that’s where our money goes twice a year in property taxes. For the three years I have been on the Select Board and the three years prior to that when I served on the Budget Committee, we have made serious strides in keeping the cost of town government under tight control. One thing we all must keep in mind is that roughly 62 percent of our taxes go to the schools and another 7 percent goes to county government.

One major contributor to the overall increase in our property taxes is the reduction in money coming from the state, both in terms of revenue sharing directly to the town and state aid to education to the schools. The past five years, I have served on the Maine Municipal Association’s Legislative Policy Committee where I have fought to minimize the impact of these tight economic times on our town and our schools. The LPC gives guidance to the MMA’s legislative policy team which represents our interested in the Maine legislature. While we haven’t won all the battles, I can say that because of our efforts, the financial hardship we are bearing is nowhere near as bad as it could be.

In summary, I can say with great confidence that it has been a pleasure to serve on the Select Board of the Town of Rockport, especially this past year as its chairman. I ask your support for another term as a member of your Select Board. We have a great town and I look forward toward our future. Please remember to vote on June 14.

 

William (Bill) Chapman is Rockport’s Select Board chairman and candidate for reelection.