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Tough going for agency requests
RUMFORD -- With the mill asking for a tax cut due to its economic situation and the issues with the state budget and the Governor's proposed cuts, there was an uneasyness in the air as the Board of Selectmen listened to the first round of initiated article requests Monday night.
Town Manager Carlo Puiia noted that initiated articles are not part of the budget. The board recommends the requests that will be placed on the warrant to be determined by citizens at the annual town meeting.
He began the session by noting, "We got some information from the mill, following our first budget meeting."
Puiia read a letter dated March 8 from Kelly Berry, controller for Rumford Paper Company. In it, she said, "We shared with our employees that our strategy involves taking deeper cuts across the board - to the tune of $33MM+. We asked for their help in identifying and overturning any rock they see as an opportunity to drive costs out. Some of these cuts will be painful, but they are imperative. Our property taxes are truly an economic disadvantage to us. For comparison, the recent painful personnel cuts reduced our costs by $2MM, however our property taxes are still $2MM higher than the next highest NewPage mill.
I urge you to use this information when working through your budget this year and keep in mind the 850 remaining mill employees fighting for every nickel and dime to keep this mill running."
Puiia then noted that of the $4.4 million the Rumford mill pays in property taxes each year, about $1 million is reimbursed back to the mill under BETR (Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement Program). That reimbursement for many years was protected by state law.
However, the Governor’s current budget proposal includes “skipping” a year of payments to the mill under BETR, basically an immediate $1 million increase in Rumford’s costs.
With that in mind, the first request was made by Fred Milligan of Post 24 for $275 for Boys' State. After much debate, the board approved it by 3-2. But following the testimony of the benefits of the program and that it nearly didn't pass, it prompted one citizen, Henry Zinck, to stand up and offer to pay the $275 for the program.
Prior to the second request, Selectman Brad Adley noted, "If we're going to cut, we should start at the top."
Next up was Mike Burke of Community Concepts, who was making the same request of $3,000 from last year, even though their budget was down 27 percent. The request was denied, but Burke was told he could make a second written request to be voted on.
He requested half the amount, which passed by 4-1.
John Kezal of the Western Maine Veterans Advisory Board then requested $175 to support activities for veterans. When that was turned down by 3-2, Board Chair Greg Buccina asked if he wanted to submit a second request for a lesser amount.
"Not really," said Kezal, who then asked for $300. The effort died for lack of a second.
A dejected Kezal, a strong advocate for veterans then walked out of the meeting. Later on, citizen Dan Richard approached the podium and chastised the board for not supporting the veterans, then said he told Kezal he'd write him a check for the amount.
The next two requests, the River Valley Growth Council for $12,000, and Safe Voices (formerly AWAP) for $4,000, were turned down before second requests for half the amounts were approved, but not unanimously.
That led to the request by the Greater Rumford Community Center, by far the largest amount of $138,100, which was what they asked for the previous year. Selectman Jeff Sterling, who once served on the GRCC Board of Directors, noted that even though it's a private entity, "The GRCC should be in the budget, not on initiated articles."
With what had happened so far, this was going to be a tough task as Steve Casey, Bob Anderson, Josanne Dolloff and Gary Dolloff presented their case.
Casey talked about the hope they will be able to get grants for things like conversion of their heating system, lighting and windows to more efficient means. That prompted Sterling to note, "Hopefully with grants, they can come back with a lower number next year.
Anderson said that with the free memberships for Rumford residents, memberships were up 140 to 670, and while the numbers in some programs were down due to the Mexico rec program, the numbers went up in other programs.
Buccina voiced concern about funding the GRCC's request completely while all the other agency requests "take a hit."
Resident Len Greaney said, "This is one organization, one building, that represents Rumford to its finest. There are a lot of children depending on this. As many Rumford residents as they would like could join this. When I look at all the articles, this is the one that has the largest umbrella over Rumford, for its citizens and its children...We are going to struggle over the next two weeks to figure out what to do with the chaos that's coming in on the mill's financial problems. But for $138,000, there's a lot of other places you can cut."
The request passed by 3-2, with Buccina and Selectman Jeremy Volkernick voting no. The board then voted the same way on a request of $22,720 for the GRCC summer programs.
There were nine other requests made by agencies after press time. A second initiated article public hearing will take place next Monday at 6 p.m. in the Rumford Falls Auditorium.