RUMFORD – Selectmen and the town lawyer, along with several residents, struggled with an issue Thursday night that could end the 200-year-old tradition of the annual town meeting.
Prompted by a citizens’ petition residents may eliminate the annual town meeting in favor of voting on budget items at referendum, if a majority so chooses in June.
At issue Thursday night was how the town would operate between the time residents vote down an article and a later amended budget figure is presented for a another vote.
Suggestions ranged from building in an automatic percentage reduction from the previous year’s budget figure to using the previous year’s budget figure until a new budget is approved.
Town attorney Jennifer Kreckel pointed out that certain parts of the budget are contractual and can’t be changed without negotiating terms. The town has three labor unions.
“Not everything people think the town can do is possible,” she added. “If we violate the terms of a contract, it can be grieved.”
Town Manager Steve Eldridge said later that many of the costs are also fixed, such as insurance premiums and utilities.
“The only cuts would likely be to capital budgets and laying off people,” he said, adding, “The budget of this town has risen less than 1 percent a year for the last 10 years.”
Resident Len Greaney said the petition was signed because of the perception in town of excessive spending.
Selectman Jolene Lovejoy disagreed with a move to eliminate the town meeting in favor of referendum voting.
“We’ve had town meetings for years, and budgets have been voted down. One advantage of the town meeting is discussion occurs immediately. I believe a secret ballot at the town meeting allows for discussions both pro and con. Many people show up at the voting booth unaware,” she said.
As tentatively proposed, if residents pass the secret ballot question in June, at least two public hearings would be held on the various components of the proposed budget, then during the June primary referendum, they would vote on each major part of the budget.
Under the proposed change, Kreckel said special town meetings could be called if an issue required immediate action by residents, such as selling or acquiring land or if some kind of financing was needed.
Town officials in neighboring Mexico are also grappling with a petition and proposed referendum question dealing with a secret ballot, as proposed by Carey and the Mexico Taxpayers Association.