Infrastructure upgrades approved, climate change discussed at town meeting

Voters applaud John French Jr.'s service, Audra Caler-Bell's managment
By Susan Mustapich | Jun 13, 2019
Photo by: Susan Mustapich Infrastructure improvements and climate change impacts were central topics during Camden's town meeting June 12.

Camden — Voters agreed to allow town government to borrow its own funds, and pay them back over the next decade, to pay for infrastructure improvements at town meeting June 12.

The borrowing adds up to around $650,000 and will save taxpayers about $110,000 in interest payments, according to Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell. The money, borrowed from, and paid back to, the town's surplus fund, will be used for structural repairs to the West Dam on the Megunticook River ($290,000), and subsurface and above-ground drainage, road and sidewalk repairs on Pearl Street ($360,000).

Caler-Bell explained to voters attending town meeting that enough has been accumulated in the surplus, or unassigned fund balance, to allow for the intra-fund borrowing. Another use of surplus is to pay municipal bills at certain times of the year. She assured residents that there is enough in surplus to pay town bills through the year, and there will be no borrowing in anticipation of property tax revenues.

Former Select Board member John French asked about the option of taking the money from surplus to pay for the projects, without requiring the money to be paid back. Eliminating the repayments would lower the impact on property taxes, he pointed out.

Caler-Bell agreed the town could do what French suggested, but said that repaying the funds will help maintain the level of the surplus, to buffer taxpayers from the impact of situations such as a future economic recession or emergencies. Paying the money back helps retain the surplus that has been built up over the years, she said.

Ray Andresen asked if the Select Board knew of any other six-figure projects coming up in the future.

Select Board member Alison McKellar said the dams were getting to the point that major repairs may be needed.

Select Board Chairman Bob Falciani explained that with Caler-Bell's help, the town has developed a long-term capital plan, and there will be other six-figure projects in the future. He explained that the planning aims to balance capital expenditures over time, with the goal of maintaining nominal yearly tax increases. He said the intra-fund borrowing recommended by Caler-Bell and Finance Director Jodi Hanson is sound fiduciary responsibility. "It gives us the flexibility and cash flow, which is key," he said. He supported the more conservative approach of paying the money back.

Board member Marc Ratner said all the board members feel Caler-Bell's decision is the right one. "It keeps us well prepared for the future," he said.

Caler-Bell said the infrastructure and capital improvement needs mapped out for the future could total $28 million to $30 million. She said there are a lot of needs, but underlined that she is not saying she recommends all of this spending.

Peter Kalajian asked, in regard to the $30 million of infrastructure projects on the horizon, if there is a review process for vetting the impacts of climate change, including the known projected impacts on water movement, sea level rise, temperature change and more. He said it's important to codify climate change impacts into the decision-making process.

Caler-Bell said a good example of how the town is looking at climate change impacts involves the eroded sea wall at Harbor Park. She mentioned how because of "experiencing more intense highest annual tides," which causes water to flow over the sea wall "more frequently than it ever has before," the board is talking about how to re-imagine that area, instead of just repairing or replacing what is there now.

The same will apply to the redevelopment of the public landing, Caler-Bell said. Camden is fortunate to be part of a study looking at commercial infrastructure in about 10 communities on Penobscot Bay, she said. The public landing and Harbor Park will be included in this study, which will give the town an opportunity to plan for sea level rise, she said.

McKellar said there is grant money available for improving infrastructure in a way that increases resiliency, addresses climate change and restores habitat. She said that grant money is not available for repairing or restoring structures as they are.

Climate change — with respect to increased rainfall — and drainage issues also came up in discussion about Pearl Street improvements.

Steve Melchiskey asked if there was a plan for improving drainage on many streets in town. He cited problems on Curtis Avenue where he lives, and Park Street.

McKellar said the issues on Curtis and Park are on the town's radar. Caler-Bell said the town is beginning to look at changes in the way drainage is done, to "encourage storm water to be dealt with in a more natural way," meaning absorbing it into the ground. She said the town is discussing sharing an intern with a local engineering firm to deal with storm water more holistically in any new infrastructure upgrades.

McKellar pointed out that absorbing storm water in retaining areas, rather than in storm water systems that drain quickly into the harbor, is important in improving harbor water quality.

Voters approved $265,000 in tax increment financing revenues collected from Camden's Downtown and Highway TIF districts to partially offset costs of the Knowlton Street parking lots lease/purchase, the Route 1 south pedestrian project, sea wall restoration and Opera House repairs.

Voters agreed to the establishment of a Landfill Closure and Post Closure reserve account to receive any remaining funds from the Municipal Review Committee, and the appropriation of these funds for the town's share of the costs of the closure/post closure of the Mid-Coast Solid Waste landfill.

Voters separately approved seven categories of municipal government expenditures, totaling $9.7 million. All Select Board recommendations were approved.

The difference between the $9.7 million, and the $9.6 million recommended by the Budget Committee is primarily due to having better information on employee benefits than was available earlier during Budget Committee review, Caler Bell said. Another factor was the addition of more money to the streetlight budget, she said. While the fixtures will be purchased from CMP, and lamps converted to LED, the exact timing of the conversion is not yet known, so more money was added to the budget for continued lease payments on the fixtures, and CMP electricity bills, she said.

Approved municipal spending includes $1,977,699 for general government; $2,402,748 for public safety; $1,652,700 for highways, streets and bridges; $25,000 for health and welfare; $1,133,926 for leisure services; $103,800 for cemeteries; and $2,437,595 for debt/capital/contingency.

Voters approved the use of $3,698,113 from non-property tax revenues to reduce the amount to be raised in property taxes. After revenues are subtracted from expenses, the Select Board-recommended budget totals $6.035 million, up 2.48 percent from 2018-19.

At the beginning of the meeting, French was honored for his 21 years of service on the Camden Select Board — the town's 2019 Annual Report is dedicated to him. Falciani said a good town never forgets those who have done so much to make it what it is.

Falciani read the Annual Report dedication to French, who remained seated in the first row of the Opera House, while voters applauded him. When it comes to taking credit for his service and accomplishments, French is known for not seeking center stage.

At the end of the meeting, McKellar recognized French for his advocacy of hiring Caler-Bell. McKeller served on the town manager search committee, and as a young person herself, finds that community members assume she or board member Jenna Lookner was responsible for bringing in a young town manager. McKellar corrected the record, saying she was casting a wide net by searching on the internet, thinking Camden could hire the best person from anywhere in the country.

She said French's guidance and former Select Board members were responsible for hiring Caler-Bell, who is from Maine. McKellar said she is "thankful for the experience we have in this town, and the people who have stuck with it for so long, and made it possible for people like me to come in and to benefit from all of that knowledge."

Voters gave a round of applause for Caler-Bell, who demurred saying she has a great staff, and does not deserve all of the credit.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jun 13, 2019 13:56

Camden has grown up to being called a BIG town. Taxes now are so big the older folks need to move to get by on pensions. This is wrong! Once upon a time towns-folk volunteered to serve on boards and got an annual pittance of perhaps $50.00, depending on the town budget. Volunteer of time was a given. Well, as the bible say, "ye reap what you sow"

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