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Austin wants to help navigate Rockland through the future

By Stephen Betts | Sep 26, 2020
Sarah Austin

Rockland — Sarah Austin said her years of working aboard schooners is useful in serving the Rockland City Council if she is elected.

"I think we can treat Rockland as a community, like a ship. We can disagree about things, we might be strangers at the beginning, but ultimately we can band together to get to our destination," Austin said during a Sept. 24 debate.

Austin is one of five candidates seeking a seat on the City Council. There are two seats up for election.

Austin grew up in a small community in New York, along Lake Erie. She said while her parents were poor, they worked hard and allowed her and her siblings an opportunity to go to college. While in college, she lived in Washington, D.C., where she learned how groups of people could band together in creative ways in order to get the attention of government.

She said her life took a turn when she volunteered to be a deck hand on a traditional sailing vessel she expected would last only a few weeks. That turned into 10 years, where she worked her way up to become a captain. During her time on different ships, she made stops in Rockland.

The Talbot Avenue resident settled in Rockland in 2018.

"Sailing is working together with a diverse group of people who communicate effectively on limited resources," Austin said.

She works as an office manager for a local accounting firm. She is also on the board of directors of the non-profit organization One Less Worry, which provides personal hygiene products to people served by the Area Interfaith Outreach.

Austin serves as chair of the Rockland Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee.

Austin said she is up for the challenges the city and council will face over the next year, and she wants to work in a collaborative and optimistic way to address those challenges.

Austin said she fully supports the City Council's decision to place a referendum before voters Nov. 3, asking if they want to adopt a city minimum wage. That wage would increase over time until it reaches $15 an hour in 2024. She said holding a referendum will allow those who are most affected by the proposal to have a say.

Higher wages are needed for people to be able to afford living in Rockland, she said.

She pointed out the minimum wage would only apply to larger businesses — those that employ more than 25 people in Rockland.

Affordable housing is so important, that Austin said there will likely not be a single issue that comes before the city that is not tied to that affordability.

"There's not a silver bullet solution to this, but we can't throw up our hands and do nothing. There are a lot of creative ways we can look at it," she said.

Austin said everyone needs to be brought into this conversation.

Rockland does not have a lot of empty space for new residential development and needs to look at multi-family homes, infill development or building taller buildings.

She said she doubts the proposal considered by the City Council to reduce minimum lot sizes, setbacks and house sizes would come back in the same form as it previously was proposed. That proposal was initially approved by the City Council in January 2019, but later repealed in the face of opposition and a petition drive that would have led to a repeal referendum.

Austin said increasing residential density is a smarter land use policy than spreading out development into open spaces and country land.

The candidate called for looking at regionalization of services to reduce costs. She said the Council faces conflicting demands from people with reduced budgets, but also want the services.

She said there were "big city expectations with a smaller city budget."

Rockland needs to be a friendly place to start a business, she said.

Austin said she supports a hybrid model of holding City Council meetings, where there are opportunities to both attend in person, but allow participation by Zoom or a similar online system.

Austin said Rockland has a well trained and compassionate police department, which is not the case everywhere.

She said any decisions on funding for police services or other services should be data driven, not based on emotion.

The city will have the entire winter to reflect and plan on what should be done on Main Street if the pandemic has not been controlled. She said the city needs to talk to all stakeholders including businesses, downtown residents and the people who commute through Main Street.

"We have to look at how to make it better if we have to do it again," she said, concerning the one lane traffic on downtown Main Street.

She said what was done this summer was a "fly by the seat of your pants emergency action."

Austin said the city needs to look at data when looking at recreation services. The parks and recreation committee she chairs was tasked with coming up with recommendations.

She said recreation is an orphan department with no staff members besides the city manager, who oversees the contract with the Penobscot Bay YMCA. The YMCA contract expires Dec. 31.

There are a lot of challenges with the Flanagan Community Center, she said.

In terms of large cruise ships coming into Rockland Harbor, Austin said there needs to be a balance, but said the large ships produce a lot of noise, light and many are bad actors that pollute the environment and do not treat workers properly.

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