Upton officials take heat at town meeting
Upton’s first annual town meeting held in the summer was a hot one.
About 45 people turned out to debate and/or complain about taxes, the fate of a bridge, a college scholarship and the use of ATVs on town roads. Voters also ousted an incumbent selectman.
The nearly three-hour meeting began with Selectboard Chair Bob Brown providing written information about the effect of ongoing local land acquisition by the Umbagog Wildlife Refuge on Upton taxes. “If they actually acquire all the land they are looking at, there will be roughly a third of the town left to try and support what it is we have to support,” he said, and taxes would go up.
He asked residents to consider the information on the handout.
Business then turned to election of town officials.
Incumbent Selectman Marie Aron was defeated by Wanda Hall, 21-17.
Incumbent Town Clerk Michele Bouchard retained her position by defeating challenger Laurie Brown, 21-16.
Bouchard was replaced on the School Committee (she declined to run again) by Pat Kenyon, who defeated Heather Zybas 17-14.
Charlotte Dominique was elected unopposed as tax collector to replace Jim Rector, who was re-elected unopposed as treasurer.
As residents later worked their way through municipal spending articles, Jeff Scribner several times demanded details on expenses. “My tax bill reflects doubling,” he said as voters discussed town office expenses. He said town officials were not providing enough information on how town money is being spent.
Rector said the town office expenses proposed for 2013 were very similar to the current year, and other officials said a recent revaluation had caused some residents’ taxes to jump last year.
Brown added that because the town meeting now takes place six months before the beginning of the next fiscal year and expenses are therefore harder to predict, town officials must allow more “buffer” funds. He said if residents did not vote money to fix a bridge under an upcoming article, the mil rate would likely go down.
Townspeople eventually approved all the municipal-spending articles, as well as school budget articles.
The items prompting the most intense debate were near the end of the 43-article warrant.
Several residents were not happy that officials did not provide written information to go with proposals to change the town building ordinance. One wanted to table the issue to a later meeting.
Planning Board Chairman Joe Bernier explained that a public hearing had been held on the changes, and was lightly attended. He said the changes were not major, and that the town was not proposing to adopt the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code. Voters then approved the ordinance changes.
An article to allow the use of town roads by ATVs to access ATV trails was approved, after modifications.
A provision that would have given selectmen authority to revoke the permission if the privilege was misused was dropped. Bernier, president of the Letter B Notch Riders, said if a town meeting granted permission, another town meeting should be required to revoke it.
Mike Lewit objected to a proposed time limitation of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. “I got a problem with that,” he said. “If someone wants to get up in the morning and go fishing at 4 a.m., you’re restricted, and you can’t take your four-wheeler at 4 a.m. this time of the year, when it’s light already.”
After more debate, voters eventually approved a simply-worded version, allowing use subject to Maine state guidelines, with no time restrictions.
Two options for dealing with the deteriorating Dead Cambridge Bridge at the end of Mill Road set off a debate between bridge abutters and several townspeople.
Replacing the bridge would cost $1 million, an option no one seriously considered. The other choices: do a 10-year fix that would still require a load limit on the structure, or give the bridge to the abutters.
Lewit said abutters restricted use of the bridge, and there was little point in the town owning it if residents could not use it. He claimed that during the winter, abutters put up a barrier to prevent others from crossing. And, he said, “You can’t go down there and fish, without getting kicked out. There’s nothing, for forever, that anybody has been able to go across there for, and we’re being told that it’s not a private bridge.”
Diane Williamson, daughter of abutter Ginny Williamson, said her family had never prevented anyone from going onto the bridge.
“We have never stopped people from going on the bridge,” she said, noting that people drive over it and turn around, and others walk over it and look at the water. “What they can’t do, is come down and start fishing from our land.” She added that one year someone had come into their yard “and made a heck of a mess.”
Williamson suggested if selectmen were going to propose discontinuing use of the bridge by the town, that they make an overall plan for other roads.
She noted that Back Street serves only one family. “Discontinue all the roads in Upton. Don’t start picking on one family,” she said.
Williamson said her family had only learned of the bridge proposal when the meeting warrant came out, and would need to consult a lawyer about the possible liability of owning the bridge. Ginny Williamson said she was not interested in owning it.
Diane Williamson also addressed earlier comments about property owners selling their land to the wildlife refuge.
“If you do this to people so they can’t use their land, so they can’t get to it and log it, what is not our incentive to sell out to the refuge?” she asked.
Another resident suggested postponing a decision in order to try to get a cheaper fix for the bridge.
But the question was abruptly called, and voters then approved the short-term repair work by a 19-14 count.
In the final hot topic of the evening, voters defeated a petition-initiated article to broaden the definition of how residents could qualify for the town’s college scholarship, which pays $1,000 a year to qualified students.
The article, submitted by Bouchard, proposed a scholarship for students under 21 who have received a diploma or credential recognized by the state, and who attain a first-semester college GPA of 2.5 or more. She cited GEDs and homeschooling as alternate ways to qualify.
She said she had asked for the article a year ago, “but I don’t have the ear of t he selectmen like some people do in town, so I had to go [the petition] route.”
Aron said that selectmen had originally set up the scholarship “as a reward for kids who traveled every day to get to school, worked hard, did extra-curricular activities, not just quit. This is not what it was set up for. We voted it in as a reward for graduating students.”
Bouchard said homeschooling and GED programs are the equivalent of a diploma.
The new scholarship plan, she said, “is a reward for doing well in college.”
But Brown said there was a problem with the clarity of the article. He said he had checked with the Maine Municipal Association and was advised that the article’s wording did not sufficiently clarify the definition of “post-secondary” education.
“It’s too open,” added Laurie Brown.
Lewit also said he was concerned that students who had earned a GED could move to Upton “and we’d be on the hook” for a scholarship. He also said the wording of the article implied a new scholarship would be set up, instead of simply altering the existing one.
Voters defeated the article.
The meeting was moderated by Wendy Hanscom.
UPTON TOWN MEETING: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
In her 1942 book, “We Took to the Woods,” writer Louise Dickinson Rich wrote about life in the area of her backwoods Rapid River home in Upton.
One chapter describes the proceedings at an annual Upton town meeting. The Citizen excerpts it here:
“We got through the electing of the town officers very nicely, since this is largely a matter of re-electing the present incumbents, the most suitable candidate for each office having been determined days ago. Only death can dislodge one. In that event, the office is apt to rotate for few years until its predestined occupant is discovered, when it again becomes stabilized. The exception is the three selectmen, who, having the most to do, are most liable to censure. But we have a neat system to take care of that. To fill the three positions we have four suitable men. Each year the one in greatest disfavor at the moment is deposed, and the current spare elected to his place. By the following March his crime has been eclipsed by the blacker, newer indiscretions of one of the trio in office, and back he comes. It's a sort of political Musical Chairs. It works out very well …
“We always have a Fighting Article. Once it was whether the constable should receive a salary of three dollars a year, or whether, instead, the town should buy him a star instead of making him furnish his own. One year it had to do with the licensing of a beer parlor. And once - oh, lovely year of which fables are still told and Rabelaisian quips repeated - it was whether or not the town should appropriate money to hire the services of a bull for the convenience of the cow-owning citizens.”