MDOT attorney questions downtown ballot question

Posted:  Wednesday, May 17, 2017 - 8:00am

A warrant article seeking to put the brakes on the Maine Department of Transportation’s $5 million, Wiscasset downtown project hit a possible roadblock Tuesday night after the wording of the question was called into question.

Jim Billings, Principal Attorney of MDOT’s Office of Legal Services, told selectmen the wording is “flawed in a number of respects.” Billings was there for a public hearing to review the June 13 warrant. Selectmen were about to close the hearing when a newspaper reporter said the article failed to state it had been inserted by petition. After selectmen agreed to correct the omission, Billings asked to address of a number concerns with the article.

Billings then summarized a letter he had sent to the town’s legal counsel Shana Cook Mueller of Bernstein Shur. A copy of the May 5 letter was provided to the Wiscasset Newspaper. “I hope you’ll advise the Select Board that there is a substantial risk voters will be misinformed and misled if they read the question by itself,” writes Billings to Cook-Mueller. “Calling this question a ‘binding vote’ does not make it so, and MDOT is not bound by the outcome of the vote,” he continues.

Billings told selectmen, as a state agency MDOT has wide discretion on how it funds its projects. He said there was nothing “nefarious” about MDOT choosing not to use federal funds in the project. He said it’s misleading to imply the state dropped federal funding as a means of avoiding historical preservation.

Billings also took issue with claims the project would raise property taxes. He told selectmen the town would save an estimated $400,000 by the state reconstructing the Main Street sidewalks and making them ADA compliant. He said after the state constructed the parking lots, they’d be turned over to the town. He added, re-surfacing and re-striping were still planned at the Creamery Wharf parking area.

“Because of these factual discrepancies and distortions, and because it is incumbent on the municipal officers to produce a warrant that gives actual and effective notice to voters, I believe an informational or explanatory note is appropriate and necessary,” states Billing in his letter.

Selectmen had in fact included an informational note with the article stating: “The voters should understand and acknowledge that MDOT may well not respond to the results of the vote in the same fashion as the voters might expect, given that MDOT is not necessarily bound by a town meeting vote on the design of the project.”

Selectman Larry Gordon told Billings he continued to have concerns about installing two traffic signals downtown. “They tried this before, it didn’t work. Will the town have control over these new lights?”

“No,” Billings replied, but he added, the lights today have motor vehicle detection sensors designed to better regulate traffic flow. Traffic consultants have predicted the lights will result in a 50 percent decrease in traffic delays, he said.

‘We have a lot of people crossing Main Street at the Federal Street intersection to get to the post office. Honestly, I think what you’re going to have downtown when this is done is a real mess,” added Gordon. “The traffic will be backed up all the way to Damariscotta.”

Selectman Ben Rines Jr. predicted the traffic lights at the intersection of routes 1 and 27 would prove to be enough of a headache following the return of summer traffic. “I hope you can get your money back from your consultants,” he commented.

Among department heads monthly reports, Police Chief Jeffrey Lange reported the department had been awarded its third grant from the Bureau of Highway Safety, $3,402 for seat belt enforcement. To date, the department has been awarded $10,051 for OUI enforcement and $2,675 for speeding enforcement. The police department responded to 577 calls in April; 264 were property checks, 94 motor vehicle stops, 18 for erratic operation of a motor vehicle and a dozen juvenile-related.

Toby Martin, EMS director, reported Dresden selectmen have not made a decision on whether or not to accept an offer for Wiscasset to provide ambulance coverage to their town. The Wiscasset Ambulance Service made 75 calls last month; 49 were in Wiscasset. There were 11 ambulance responses to Edgecomb, six to Westport Island and three calls made to both Damariscotta and Woolwich.

Wiscasset EMS will host its second open house from 9 a.m. to noon, Saturday, May 27.

Fire Chief T.J. Merry stated the department responded to 12 calls in April including one structure fire and two brush fires. Merry noted the department has 21 members on its active roster and one on a waiting list.

Public Works Director Doug Fowler reported the town mechanic was having trouble finding replacement parts for the department’s two, 20-year-old dump trucks. Due to their age, parts including wheel hubs are becoming hard to find. “The engine frames and many other components of the vehicles are also of concern. I fear we are sitting on two ticking time bombs that will leave us literally in the ditch next winter if not sooner,” states Fowler.

Selectmen voted to increase the cost of shellfish harvesting licenses. Resident commercial licenses were set at $195 (12-license limit) and $390 for non-residents commercial licenses (two-license limit). Resident recreation licenses will be $20 (30-license limit), and non-resident recreation licenses $40 (three-license limit). The changes take effect this year. The last increase was 17 years ago.

Town Planner Ben Averill discussed shore and harbor grants the town could apply for to help cover the costs of replacing the footbridges to Whites Island. The town accepted ownership of the island last year, although the two footbridges leading to it remain closed due to safety concerns about their condition. Averill will coordinate with non-profit groups to explore funding options.

Selectmen agreed to allow Averill to form a five- to seven-member exploratory committee to look into bringing broadband internet access to town.

The board dedicated the annual town report to former selectman William Barnes of Gardiner Road and former parks and recreation director Todd Souza.

Ed Kavanaugh, president of the Museum in the Street Committee, gave selectmen copies of the group’s new brochure. New this year is an App through Google play and the Apple Store.  

Selectmen granted permission to the Chamber of Commerce to close a portion of Middle Street on July 27 from 4 to 8 p.m. for the July Art Walk.

Selectmen authorized taking $500 from the Lawrence B. Haggett Memorial Scholarship Fund and $1,000 from the John and Jeanette French Scholarship for two Wiscasset Middle High School students. The recipients will be announced at Class Night.

Selectmen approved the applications for seven catered weddings at Marianmade Farm on Federal Street. The board opened bids for EMS personal protection equipment; the bid award is pending following review by the EMS director and town manager.

William H. Brewer, CPA of Bath and Damariscotta, was hired as the town’s new auditor. Selectmen voted unanimously to award Brewer a three-year contract. Wright-Pierce Engineers of Topsham was hired for up to $12,900 to conduct an operations and maintenance review of the treatment plant. Selectmen authorized $7,000 in repair work to the highway department’s winter salt and sand shed.

The board voted unanimously to petition the Public Advocate concerning the water district’s proposed rate increase.