The question that split the house at Whitefield’s annual town meeting in March, whether the town should adopt an elderly tax deferral ordinance, will again be presented to voters, this time by ballot at the June 14 election.
The Whitefield Board of Selectmen voted 3-1 at its April 19 meeting to add the question to the June 14 ballot, when the town will vote on the RSU 12 budget.
Selectman Frank Ober was the only opposing vote to asking the town whether it should adopt an ordinance which would allow qualifying seniors to defer payment of their property taxes; Chair Dennis Merrill was not in attendance.
Resident Peter Froehlich, an advocate for Whitefield’s development of the elderly tax deferral ordinance, asked the board of selectmen to again present the ordinance to the town, due to the process in which the vote was taken at the open town meeting.
During Whitefield’s open town meeting March 19, those voting in favor and in opposition to the ordinance were asked to stand on separate sides of the Whitefield Elementary School gymnasium so the vote could be counted. The vote was too close to call by a show of ballots in the air, so the moderator called for “the house to be split.”
It was the first time in Whitefield’s recent history that a vote had been too close to call by the town’s traditional method of holding ballots in the air. After several counts, the ordinance was narrowly defeated, 63-53.
The process used to tabulate the vote “was loopy,” Froehlich said. “They went through an unorthodox, extraordinary measure to get the count, and they came up with different numbers. In essence, I and many others didn’t think the vote was done fairly.”
A majority of selectmen agreed. “We all agreed (the vote) was a little sketchy,” Selectman Tony Marple said. “We had multiple counts. We probably should have gone to a written ballot at that point.”
Selectmen’s decision to include the ordinance on a local ballot at the June 14 election was due to the way the vote was conducted at town meeting, Marple said. “We don’t want people at town meeting to feel disenfranchised,” he said.
According to Froelich, due to a motion to move the question to a vote at the open town meeting, the vote was taken before all the questions of residents were answered. “There were still hands in the air,” Froelich said. Selectmen will again hold a public hearing on the elderly tax deferral ordinance before the ordinance goes to voters in June.
Whitefield’s proposed elderly tax deferral ordinance is based on state law, which enables municipalities to allow elders who meet certain criteria to defer property taxes in exchange for a town lien on their property.
Taxes would accrue on the property until the elder moves, sells their property, or passes away, according to the law. At that point, the municipality’s lien on the property would take priority over other liens and the municipality would be able to recoup all outstanding property taxes.
Interest would accrue on the property at the rate set by the town for late payments plus 0.5 percent.
To date, Wells is the only municipality in Maine to have adopted an elderly tax deferral ordinance, and currently no resident is enrolled in the program.
Ober has been a vocal opponent of the ordinance since it was first proposed, due to the uncertainties involved in the program, the lack of an asset test associated with the program’s income guidelines, and the possibility that the town could acquire property that was a liability to the town.
The second public hearing will offer an opportunity for residents to learn more about the pros and cons of the ordinance, Froelich said. “I think it’s wonderful,” he said. “It will be a more accurate count that will better represent the feelings of Whitefield.”
In addition to the elderly tax deferral ordinance, the June 14 election may include another local ballot question, whether to amend the town’s wireless communication ordinance. The Whitefield Planning Board is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting Wednesday, April 27 to discuss the amendment.
The ordinance limits the height of cellphone towers to 120 feet; however, the planning board would like to amend the ordinance to 199 feet, Chair Jim Torbert said. The amended height would enable adequate cellphone coverage, but not trigger Federal Aviation Administration requirements for cellphone towers over 200 feet, he said.
At Whitefield’s town meeting, a resident expressed concern about the lack of cellphone reception in Whitefield, in part caused by the town’s limits on cellphone tower heights. It has long been an informal topic of concern for residents, Torbert said.
“When the ordinance was originally enacted, not many people had cellphones and no one depended on them,” Torbert said. “Now they’re the predominant communication system. It’s a safety issue and a major annoyance to people in town.”
A public hearing on the proposed amendment to the wireless communication ordinance will likely be held on the same day as the public hearing on the elderly tax deferral ordinance, Torbert said.
In addition to the questions on the local ballot, and the RSU 12 budget, the June 14 vote is the state’s primary election. Polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Whitefield’s municipal fire station.