AUBURN — The City Council passed a resolution Monday declaring all businesses essential and calling on Gov. Janet Mills to reopen all businesses, the same day the Mills administration accelerated reopening guidelines for businesses in Androscoggin, Cumberland and York counties.

The council debated the language and tone of the resolution at length, with some calling it a moot point given Mills’ announcement earlier in the day, while others called it an important message to send to Augusta and the local business community.

After more than an hour of debate and public comment, the council voted 4-3, with Katie Boss, Holly Lasagna and Tim MacLeod opposed.

Most of the language, however, was altered from its original version after a series of amendments were made by MacLeod, Lasagna and Boss. Councilor Brian Carrier joined them in each vote to pass the amendments.

Much of the document focuses on the inclusion of Androscoggin County among Maine counties that have seen additional restrictions due to COVID-19. However, the Mills administration on Monday announced plans to reopen all businesses in those counties within days.

An attempt to postpone the item indefinitely failed 4-3. With all councilors sitting in the Council Chamber, MacLeod, Lasagna and Boss wore masks.

Advertisement

“The vast majority is moot, but still can be looked at as a message to the governor and Auburn citizens,” Mayor Jason Levesque said.

Councilor Belinda Gerry, who introduced the resolution along with Councilor Stephen Milks, also argued the resolution was an important message.

“I want us to be on record that we’re taking a stand, one way or the other,” she said.

Auburn joined other towns such as Gorham and Calais in passing similar resolutions.

Those on the supporting side said the resolution should’ve been considered earlier. Milks argued that the governor has single-handedly been able to decide whether a business is essential, thus “determining a person’s outcome.”

However, those opposed said the resolution was poorly written, inaccurate and reflected poorly on the community.

Advertisement

“This is unbelievably disappointing,” Boss said. “Public health is a system that you don’t see when it’s working.”

Boss added that Maine is not seeing a large number of cases because of its social distancing measures up until now, and said the resolution “does nothing.”

Lasagna said she was “embarrassed” by the resolution, while MacLeod called it “callous and combative.”

MacLeod’s amendments changed some of the tone he referred to, including striking several sentences altogether.

One sentence removed from the resolution stated, “Auburn area citizens are being forced to adhere to the state’s provisions and precautions, while protesters are given total freedom to disregard state requirements.”

Asked why he wanted it removed, MacLeod said no one is being forced to adhere to the guidelines.

Advertisement

During public comment, several people called in via Zoom, including Lynn Ward, an attorney. She said the language in the resolution comes from concerns over the economy and a “pent up desire to return to normalcy.”

But, she said, that return to normalcy ignores low-wage workers and others who will be the most at-risk when returning to work. She said the resolution “places property, which is replaceable, over people, who are not.”

Also calling in was Androscoggin County Commissioner John Michael, who said the resolution “keeps pressure” on the governor regarding COVID-19 guidelines.

He compared the current pandemic to the Spanish Flu of 1918, stating the country “did not shut down” then.

“If you’re afraid of this, do whatever your government tells you, hide in a corner, do whatever you want to do,” he said.

Auburn resident Dana Staples said going to an Auburn restaurant over the weekend changed his mind about the resolution. But he said reopening completely will increase the risk for more cases and potential deaths.

Advertisement

“They are doing this the right way,” he said regarding the business. “There are ways we can do this safely, but it does increase risk.”

He said Auburn councilors should be prepared to decide “how many deaths is this worth to you?”

Former councilor and mayoral candidate Adam Lee wrote a letter to the council earlier in the day stating that he empathized with much of the resolution, but he questioned what it was attempting to achieve.

“If the answer is to play a serious role in the statewide discussion on reopening businesses, this resolution widely misses the mark,” he said, adding that it “contains factually inaccurate statements,” “is civically misinformed, and is blind to the public health dangers readily observable throughout the country.”

The council did agree, however, on a related resolution that asks Gov. Mills to immediately begin distributing federal relief funds to Maine municipalities.

In a unanimous vote, the council asked the administration to disburse some $1.2 billion in the coronavirus relief bill to local municipalities to be used to offset pandemic-related expenses and loss of revenue.

The document states that Auburn’s “COVID-19 costs continue to grow, surpassing $200,000, and city revenues to fund local services are decreasing.”

It also states it has resulted in the elimination of positions in next year’s budget, including a vacant police officer position, two vacant firefighter positions, two vacant public works equipment operators and a vacant mechanic position.

Those positions were part of several recent budget cuts that account for a revenue shortfall.

BUDGET PASSES FINAL READING 

Also on Monday, the council voted 6-1 to pass next year’s spending plan in a final reading.

The $41.3 million budget is an increase of $951,135 from this year, while the county budget and intergovernmental expenses, at $4.5 million, is a $126,217 increase.

In a 6-1 vote, the council also approved $10.1 million in bonding for next year’s Capital Improvement Plan. Councilor Gerry voted against both items.

The council also voted unanimously to pass the $45.8 million school budget, which will head to referendum on July 14.

The budgets represent a 0% increase to the local property tax rate.

Comments are no longer available on this story