In a 37 to 28 vote, Newcastle residents rejected an article that would have authorized the Newcastle Board of Selectmen to create a public works department at a special town meeting Monday, Oct. 19.
The vote followed a lively hour-long discussion as well as months of preparation by the selectmen to come up with a plan for the future of public works in Newcastle following the discontinuation of the interlocal agreement with Damariscotta.
The Damariscotta Board of Selectmen voted July 15 to discontinue the agreement, which had been in place since 2011. The agreement expires Oct. 31.
Newcastle Board of Selectmen Chairman Brian Foote gave a presentation to the residents in attendance similar to one he had given at the public works public hearing Sept. 21. Foote outlined the operational costs of running a public works department, including a three-person staff made up of a full-time foreman, a part-time engineer, and a seasonal laborer.
The operations budget also included the purchase of a truck equipped with a plow and sander, as well as payments for a mini-excavator the town is currently leasing.
Foote said the proposed budget of $109,534 per year would not increase over the next five years, and the town would end each fiscal year with a surplus.
At the public hearing, some residents had raised concerns that there was no way to compare the operating cost of the department to what local contractors would charge for doing the same job. In his presentation, Foote compared the price of what it would cost a town public works department and a contractor to do three improvement projects on Lewis Hill Road, North Dyer Neck Road, and Cochran Road to show the potential savings. The contractor’s price was estimated using numbers from the state.
“In the records we have from previous contracted work, there is no way to break it out part by part,” Foote said.
Although the comparisons showed it would be cheaper to have the public works department do the work, some residents were not convinced the flat budget would be able to hold for the next five years and beyond.
“Public works does nothing but grow and grow and grow,” said Neiland Campbell. “You say the budget will stay the same for now, but what about when someone starts asking for more money? These numbers are guesstimates, at best.”
Donnie Hunt said Newcastle residents can’t afford to have their taxes raised more than they have been in recent years. Foote reminded the crowd the municipal costs only make up one part of the tax rate.
“We have more people here tonight than we do at the annual town meeting,” Foote said. “If you want to talk about the tax rate, go to that meeting too so we can discuss it.”
Rob Nelson said that although the taxes might be high, the town has an obligation to maintain the roads.
“If we don’t work to maintain the roadway, it will end up costing us more in the long run,” Nelson said. “We have been able to get ahead of the maintenance in the past, and I think that’s valuable to remember.”
The warrant article read, “Shall the Town direct the Selectmen to create the Newcastle Public Works Department to maintain and improve the infrastructure of the town owned roads, ways, and buildings and lands and task the Selectmen with oversight, hiring, staffing, and providing a budget for said Department?”
The article failed with a vote of 37 to 28.
In their brief meeting following the town meeting, the selectmen tentatively scheduled a workshop for Nov. 2 to discuss how the town intends to proceed with public works. Prior to the interlocal agreement, the town had used subcontractors to complete public works projects.