ALBANY TOWNSHIP — After hearing from Albany Township residents last week about a double-digit jump in their tax rate, Oxford County Administrator Scott Cole said capital improvements, particularly for roads, were a needed and realistic step.
He also pledged that the municipal services budget for unorganized territories will not increase significantly next year.
About two dozen people met at Albany’s Town House on Oct. 14 with Cole, county Commissioner Steve Merrill and road engineering adviser Todd Sawyer.
The gathering was organized by the Albany Improvement Association in response to complaints about a 17 percent overall increase in this year’s tax rate for unorganized territories.
Cole provided a detailed explanation of why he said the budget needed to increase as much as it did.
An unorganized territories municipal services tax comparison he distributed showed an increase to $1.35 million over the previous year’s $877,519.
The budget was put together last fall, a public hearing was held then and the Legislature approved it in April. Tax bills went out in August.
Much of the discussion at last week’s meeting focused on roadwork. Some people questioned the standard of reconstruction of the Hunt’s Corner Road, with one resident calling it ‘a superhighway’ that is not needed.
Sawyer, who advises the county on roadwork, said the road has more than 400 cars a day traveling over it. “It’s the most heavily traveled road in the area,” he said. For that reason, he said, it falls under more stringent state guidelines for reconstruction.
Asked why two large culverts on the road had to be replaced, Sawyer said there has been more tree harvesting in the area than there was when they were installed decades ago and, as a result, the runoff rate has been greater than the culverts could handle. They were also deteriorating, he said.
Sawyer added there is also more tractor-trailer traffic over the road because GPSs send drivers that way instead of Routes 118 and 5. “‘We need the road to match the state roads on each side,” he said.
Because more drivers are going faster, curves in the road needed to be tipped to keep vehicles on the road, he said.
Cole said that with rocks coming up through the pavement and deteriorating shoulders, doing more superficial, short-term repair work would have been “good money after bad. There is no incremental fix.”
Sawyer said the cost of the roadwork in Albany is not borne only by Albany, but is shared countywide. There are 56 miles of roads in the unorganized territories, he said, with about half of them in Albany.
Resident John Kimball said the Hunt’s Corner Road work was much needed, and the state should do significant reconstruction on Route 5.
Cole said more improvements will soon take place at the intersection of Hunt’s Corner Road and Picnic Hill Road.
Asked if future budgets would drop now that the Albany work is done, Cole said the South Arm and East B Hill roads in the Andover area also need work. “They’re almost impassable at times,” he said, adding, “$50,000 gets you nothing in road rebuilding. It’s got to be done comprehensively.”
Jim Mitchell was skeptical about the South Arm Road. “It goes nowhere and no one rides on it,” he said.
But Cole said it is still a public road and cannot be ignored. He said the cost for the work would be in six figures.
Sawyer said a bridge in Milton Township is near collapse and needs to be replaced at a cost of $50,000.
He also said roads that have been reconstructed properly are less costly to maintain. “They last longer, are easier to plow and use less sand and salt,” he said.
Looking toward next year’s budget, Cole told Albany residents, “You have my word that if I get the budget I’ve asked for the coming year, this (municipal services) piece will stay, it will fly straight.
“I would ask residents to support the numbers we have here,” Cole said. “It’s our best estimate of what it takes to maintain roads in terms of plowing, cutting vegetation and capital improvements/rehabilitation. We don’t have plans to keep jacking the capital numbers up for the foreseeable future. It appears a $500,000 to 600,000 per year capital expense is probably legitimate.
“We do believe the numbers we have in place now are realistic … You have my word it will not go up beyond where we are now.”
He said he can’t control school and other state-generated expenses that are also included in the tax bill.
The proposed fiscal year 2016 municipal services budget for unorganized territories shows a total tax of $1.23 million.
Some residents wondered if Albany might have more say in how tax money is spent by having a township resident on the county Budget Committee.
But Cole said that was not the case, because state statute calls for 19 selectmen from nine county towns to serve on the committee, with three towns represented from each of three districts in the county.
“You have no official person to say, ‘No, that’s not fair.’ You are at the whim of the county commissioners,” he said.
But, Cole said, compared to towns, Albany has an advantage from a tax perspective. “With the trade-off of not having direct say, you’re getting access to the same schools, the same fire departments. You are getting a good deal.”
For example, he said, the entire budget for fire protection for the unorganized territories is about $100,000. “That’s a cheap fire department,” he said.
A few residents were still skeptical and questioned the value of the response of local fire departments and charges for ambulance service from Bethel. Some also wondered if the county could better advertise the unorganized territories budget process and hearings.
Cole said there is no “organized way to get the word out,” and apologized.
Budget and other information is on the county website at www.oxfordcounty. org/.
Merrill encouraged Albany residents to attend budget hearings.
“I don’t think I’ve seen any of you at our public hearings in the past,” he said. “We always have to call people to show up. We’d love to hear from you.”
Commissioners meet the third Tuesday of the month.