Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Roads and steering

The never-ending struggle of how  to maintain - and pay for - proper roads is all too common. The town of Paris is in this struggle to the point of exasperation. Our roads are in desperate shape - ask anybody in town who drives a car or truck. No argument. We need a plan.

But how to go about it?  Capital improvement plan, through annual budgeting, using the tax base? Float a bond, paying back borrowed money over time? Only patch the holes and hope for the best?  Pass the buck and wait for the next administration to do something?

And which roads to deal with first - or at all?  A little effort has surfaced in the form of a study. The current highway foreman, hired this winter 2011,  has launched into a computer software program used by Maine DOT that, using certain criteria, will identify roads to be repaired or replaced. But, here in the month of August 2011,  no concrete suggestion has yet appeared from the town manager (who is also the road commissioner for the Town of Paris) for the selectboard to discuss and work into a plan to approach the public with..

In fact, there appears to be confusion and frustration in the administrative response to this road concern - and the roads do not improve themselves.

A straightforward approach could be: (1) identify the problem  - the job of selectboard and town manager/ highway commissioner along  w/ individual voter input; (2) research solutions  - part of the job description of the road commissioner; (3) combine the identified problem and concrete research for discussion  by the entire selectboard  - not just the chairman and road commissioner and maybe one or two other politically expedient individuals ; (4) present a summary of information that includes concrete options to the ultimate decision makers  - the taxpayers/voters -  for hearings, and then a vote.  Then get on with it.

So, no plan, so far, and no discussion happening, so far, on a plan.

That brings us to a second, parallel issue currently operating in Paris, and it lurks under the old, unfriendly nemesis of "who is running this town?"

There appears to be a management issue within the selectboard itself.

The Town of Paris is set  up to operate under the Town Meeting form of government. That means the chain of command is : Voters at Town Meeting (decisions) to  Selectboard (directions) to Manager (day-to-day work product).

If  one of the 3 levels functions inadequately, or even improperly, the need for that particular function does not disappear; e.g., if a manager happens not to perform adequately in a certain situation,  the board will end up picking up that work, if there is no insistence on the manager to be accountable.

On the other hand,  if a board member stretches his or her power into the manager's territory, not only is the manager held less accountable, the selectboard's ability to function efficiently and effectively is in danger of being compromised.

The selectboard itself must operate as a single body in their deliberations, each member equal to the other, contributing to discussions that lead to workable solutions.  Title  30-A M.R.S.A.§2001 gives a description re. municipal officers. The section  Distinction BetweenFirst, Second, and Third Municipal Officers states, in part, that  "Under state law, there is no difference between the first, second, and third selectperson. .."

 We seem to have a chairman who slips into holding court and being judge and jury; who not only physically turns his back on a dissenting board member, but constantly interrupts and dismisses questions, concerns, or, heaven forbid, criticisms from any other board member who may not agree with him.

No matter how well intentioned this chairman may be, or  how knowledgeable, the fiscal and policy issues of this town, in general, and our critical road improvement needs, in particular, are items that require equal, open, and unfettered  board discussion among all 5 board members - including listening to questions and controversial opinions, and not rearranging or misstating  other peoples' ideas and motions - before the information comes before public discussion  in preparation for a vote.

  "I want,"  "I do not want,"  "I would like to see,"  "I'm trying to get,"  "I,"  "I,"  "I" is not board discussion. It is a one man steering committee.  Linked here is a transcript from a 16-plus  minutes  segment of the 8-22-2011 board meeting that ran 3 hours and 49 minutes. The item was not even officially on the already-too-long agenda. The transcript depicts a situation where the chairman, having  acted on his own on a matter not yet discussed by the board, came to the board after the fact, looking for support for his action.

[ editor's note: The partial transcript, quoting mostly only one speaker, is lengthy. But, for those willing to take the time, it is illuminating.]

We currently have a serious situation in our town that affects everyone: our roads are in desperate shape. We need a plan. In order to achieve this - and  anything else, for that matter - this town's municipal machine must function properly. That means its manager must produce and  be held accountable, and its selectboard , all of it,  must lead .

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Testing, testing

“...provide a means for everyone in Paris (ME) to learn about news and issues affecting them.”

This is still TPR’s mission. There are times when there are issues – or segments of them – that don’t make it into the mainstream media. Sometimes those segments add a missing piece to a picture, and that picture may be something that has a measurable effect on the lives of citizens in a community.

So... are there things we need to know about what’s going on in Paris?

Yes, there are.

Are there folks trying to make things better, trying to bring situations up to speed, trying to understand what part they can play to make Paris a better place to live?

Yes, there are.

Any individuals who have a personal agenda to do anything else?


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dollars, taxes, and questions

Monday April 11, 7 PM Paris Selectboard will meet at the town office. Agenda here.

Most members on our selectboard, in addition to regular selectboard meetings and responsibilities, have been doing double duty by attending the current sessions of budget committee meetings. These sessions are open to the public, though, since it is a committee work time, no public comments are allowed. A reporter or two has dropped by, and a few citizens. The sessions will end with a public hearing April 22 (that is not really a hearing at all, but a preview presentation of the final budget for any interested citizen).

The already flattened budget proposed by Town Manager Tarr, is being ironed further by the budget committee. [editor's note: A budget flattened except for this $180 K truck that he says we must have... Only a few have pursued the question of why now, in this flat lined budget, when even the streetlights may become endangered species...] The committee is hammering his proposed budget into a document for voters in June 2011 - in the hopes that if spending has the same dollar amount as June 2010, our taxes will be kept in check.

[editor's note: Though municipal spending is a large factor, it is actually the mil rate that determines what the final tax dollar amount per citizen. Mil rate is effected by several factors; 2009 calculation page listed here for reference.]

TPR post 4-01-11
, along with others, questioned both the million dollar bond and the forming of a local road works operation as a short term financial solution. At the budget committee meeting 4-7, Mgr. Tarr presented a very different approach for the road work issue, offering 3 choices with various financial implications and long term effects. The budget committee chose to do what will be an extra belt tightening action: "Perform ditching, culverts, and any other ancillary work on Oxford Street. Place a thin layer of asphalt over the worst sections of Oxford St. and Paris Hill Road to get by for the next year or two. Money to do this would come from the $88,000 already in the capital budget, or the operating budget, and would negate the need to borrow this year."

But now another critical question arises. What dollar amount from 2010-2011 are we going to flat line our 2011-2012 budget to?

Budget Chair Vic Hodgkins, in a frustrated statement at the end of Thursday's meeting, exclaimed "...the numbers don't seem to work! ". He went on to explain what his goal has been for the committee, that he will "...make sure that whatever this committee puts out for numbers is not one penny more than what we voted on last year. And that figure changed." He explained his understanding of how the figures in the material the committee had been working with had been achieved, and his commitment to keeping the total the same this year. "Now, I look at the figure we get tonight, that's dated 4-6-11, same, same categories, same thing, and all of a sudden the numbers have changed."

A composite budget sheet (from the 6-12-10 town meeting plus the 7-26-2010 special town meeting) show a total municipal expenditure for 2010-2011 of $3,346,186; the expenses totals on the 2012 Budget Committee Department Review show a figure of $3,398,590.

This is a difference of $52,404. The composite sheet lists things in single stand-alone categories; and, where there is more than one item in a category, the single items are listed and a total given in the category as well. For example, line item #1 is a stand-alone category; line 2 & 3 are in another category, and line 4 is the total of 2 & 3. Line #2 is $494,716; line #3 is $325,289. And in this line is the rub, because the total is $820,005, not $767,602, as listed. This is a difference of $52,403. Give or take one dollar for rounding up or down, this error had been corrected in the 4-06 budget total.....

...but somehow, no one had thought to tell the budget committee, several weeks into their work sessions ( and for Chairman Hodgkins, much longer). Management evidently working from one figure, workers from another.

So, what dollar amount are we supposed to flat line to, folks, if we're going to do this thing?

And, who has the bottom line responsibility to make sure the numbers are accurate? During Thursday's budget meeting, after Chairman Hodgkins' statement of frustration, Mgr. Tarr was quick to point out the changes in finance officers and all the other changes and new people that have gone on in this town.

TPR wishes to pose the question: Who has the word Manager beside his name? He's been here through 2 budget cycles now. What has he been doing while all this change has been going on?

Friday, April 1, 2011

The use of our money - a red flag or two

Thursday's budget work session on Paris' financial structure and its management included some promising question asking and open discussion between committee members and attending selectboard. There has not been such since the budget process began earlier in March. NPCTV and a reporter from The Advertiser Democrat were also in attendance.

It is a good thing to have the press, because there is no other way for voters to learn about what might happen with their money. Even though there is a token hearing sometime in April, it is only a presentation of a done deal; the work has been finished and approved ready for the June town meeting. Input from the voters - read that the bill payers -is not solicited.

It is a good thing, also, because there are huge financial questions on the horizon, and a feeling of confidence does not abound for the budget planning exhibited by Mgr. Phil Tarr so far.

Granted the economy is tight all over, and municipal needs are many. Paris selectboard voted 4-1 to seek a flat lined budget. This in itself approaches the unrealistic, when there are costs that will not go away no matter what belt tightening is implemented...the state of our roads being high on the list.

A solution offered by Mgr. Tarr is to float a million dollar bond, repayable over 5 years, first payment not to be in this year's budget. To use for what? And how to pay it back? And what about the other costs still accruing while paying back the bond? The 12 or 13 people in the discussion, all Paris citizens who would be included in any consequences, were divided on a bond approach. No agreement was reached.

Mgr. Tarr had been promoting the idea of Paris Highway Department doing its own road work to save money as the bond is paid back, insisting that our new highway foreman and our equipment and gravel...at the ready not too far away...would make that a workable solution. Last night there was a little backpedaling, with the highway foreman saying they could probably do some of the smaller jobs. Mgr. Tarr suggested that some roads, Ryerson Hill, for example could just "have it's surface stripped off and stay a gravel road for a while."

The budget committee and selectboard asked for more information on everything. Despite updates and new budget work sheets with new and different figures being cranked out of the front office for each session, members expressed frustration as they tried to keep up and get some sort of handle on what was going on.

NPCTV will broadcast the session Sunday April 3 at 6:30. See for yourself.

There is no opportunity to ask questions at these meetings. Questions - maybe answers, maybe discussion - only at the town meeting just before voting. Perhaps a question in a selectboard meeting during "citizens' comments" would be answered. Both the Advertiser Democrat and the Sun Journal have shown interest in keeping the public informed; that is certainly hopeful.

But it's our money, and we have to inform ourselves. Take advantage of NPCTV Sunday at 6:30 pm. Support and encourage the local press to ask questions and share the answers.

Items of worry, to list a few, about this budget:

(1) Do we want to saddle Paris with the dilemma of borrow now and pay later - adding to everything else we're already paying for later?

(2)What about roads - can they wait to be fixed properly? Can we afford for them to be "fixed" inadequately? Do we dare trust the decisions to be made wisely?

Part of a town budget is the "undesignated fund balance," Paris' policy linked here. It is a means to keep budgeted money until it's needed to pay the bills. Among other stabilizing factors, "It is a surplus of funds which have accrued from unexpected operating budgets and unanticipated excess revenues." [from Paris' policy, above.] There are strict guidelines on how much can be kept before it is turned over to specifically designated town funds.

(3) So, why would the town need to create an additional account, a reserve undesignated fund account - with less restriction ? What Mgr. Tarr called "a stabilization fund"? An account that eventually could approach as much as $500 K, and could be dipped into whenever, without having the item necessarily on the budget?

The chairman of the budget committee asked Mgr. Tarr for leadership - to give them more concrete information at this point, something they can get a hold of to finish putting this budget in place.

And we? We, the rest of the voters, need to educate ourselves and stay extremely vigilant.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

This budget is bond dependent

Paris Selectboard meets 3-28-11, 7pm, town office.

ATV use of public roads, lawsuits, candidates for possible selectboard vacancies, cutting spending to lower our taxes, and more. These items are all on the table. But concerned citizens need to understand that there is a more subtle issue at stake, as well.

On January 24, with a vote of 4-1, The Paris Selectboard voted to "set as a goal to flat line the budget for the whole Town and freeze wages for all Town employees". [ in minutes from Paris selectboard meeting 1-24-11 ]

The Committee preparing the budget for Paris' fiscal year 2011-12 has taken this to heart and have been working to ensure that nothing less than this very thing is presented to voters at the June town meeting. Well, no one likes tax bills that keep coming and coming and never get any smaller, do they? Surely we can do with less all around - cut here and slash there - just STOP SPENDING. If we cut spending today there will be nothing coming due tomorrow, right? The piper never demands payment? The clock can be stopped? Don't we wish.

No matter what we want, to ignore looking at what today's shortcuts will bring tomorrow is reckless. If we're going to agree to cut spending, let's do it with eyes wide open, study options, understand consequences. Tightening one's belt doesn't have to be irresponsible.

There are what looks like red flags in the budget being worked on right now. There seems little opportunity - or worse, no one with whom - to have a discussion or debate on issues that are going to affect this town and all of us in it. A committee member herself even asked, when the issue of finding a less expensive health insurance for employees came up, and she was told they had to move on, "When can we talk about this? I don't want this to fall into a hole."

Let's take the Highway Department budget. Roads are a touchy subject around here especially at the end of winter. It takes a huge chunk of money to build and maintain roads. Some hundreds of thousands. So, if one wanted to cut spending this budget would offer an opportunity or 2.

In this year's proposed highway budget, Mgr. Tarr managed to shave roughly 10 thousand dollars from last year's total....but in a budget that's supposed to be flatlined, under "capital improvements," we find a brand new line item this year for $180,000. A new truck. The funds will come from other shaving in other places...but: to paraphrase what one selectman has adamantly verbalized over and over, why would we need to spend this now when things are so tight? Why could it not go into the hole-in-the-dike plugging needs we seem to be surrounded with?

During the 3-17 budget committee meeting, the answer became more and more apparent when Mgr. Tarr was asked firmly to go back and make his budget even flatter. He replied that he didn't want to touch surplus, and he didn't want to reduce capital balance. But he felt that he could certainly make more cuts. And now, the solution he has been hinting at for quite a while has become the fixing thing. He responded to the Budget Committee Chair, "This budget has become bond dependent."

Many towns have bond money at work in their municipality - it is not uncommon. But it is the beginning of something, not an end-all. And the public works program (read that "road building at the local level") he is proposing to use part of the money for needs to be examined very carefully.

When is all that going to come before the public? For questions and discussion, not just a nice friendly and efficient agenda that includes closing up the world when the chairman is done talking.

TPR will follow up on this topic. There are questions about the $180 K truck; about what was cut out of the Highway Dept.'s budget that added up to the $10,000; about this particular road building plan; and about the bond option. Some of this information cannot wait to be talked about in a hearing where there is only rubber stamping involved, or until the town meeting in June. If great and grand plans are about to be set in motion - on our dime - some of us cry Time! We need to talk.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Continuing saga

Monday March 14 the Paris selectboard will meet at 7pm in the Fire Station. There will be a little business covered, some bills paid, an appointment or 2. Agenda here.

And then, more of what we've had...and had...and had:

(1) ATV use of public roads on Paris; and, an even older, more worn out topic,(2) who pays for the upkeep of Town Farm Road?

While the facts of the matter on either topic can be - and have been - presented ad nauseum, it is not the facts that TPR wishes to address.

TPR's 2-13 article stated an interest in "how the decision makers - our selectboard - function in general." This perspective of who runs the town and how effective they are in meeting the needs of the majority has been an underlying theme for TPR from the onset. Paris' town government has had almost 2 years of major change upon major change; yet the more things change, the more they sometimes seem no different.

The administration, that is the town manager, and his immediate overseers, the selectboard, our elected officials, still need not only our support, but our scrutiny.

We still have the issue of the rights involved in ATVs using parts of public roads to connect their trails, and who decides that. Dealing with this is difficult enough, without the additional dynamic of having to deal with someone grandstanding and seeking personal aggrandizement.

There is a practicing lawyer on the selectboard who has not denied meeting in his office with parties from one side of this issue. He now needs to be asked, by his fellow board members, to recuse himself from any further discussions, decisions, and actions on this topic as long as he is on the selectboard. Even the "appearance of impropriety" should be avoided. 30-A M.R.S.A.§2605(6)

And then we have the Town Farm Road. It is not TPR's interest to pursue the ins and outs of the case. Suffice it to say the argument between the Town of Paris and the residents in the Town Farm Road Association stems from a disagreement on who should maintain the road into their private development.

Atty. D. Hanley presented the Association's argument to the town 2-2005. The town consulted with the firm of Kurtz and Perry, and in April of that year the town's position was explained in a letter to Atty. Hanley from then Mgr. S. Jackson. On or about 3-30-05, the firm of Kurtz and Perry billed the town $1,125, and again 4-11-05, for $225, for consultation on the Town Farm Road.

Atty. Hanley tried again 4 years later; on the agenda of the 11-09-09 selectboard meeting, he expounded for 30 minutes with the same request. The 2009 board could not change the 2005 decision because after the original decision it had become a court matter.

And now, a lawsuit has been filed by the Town Farm Road Association, according to the 3-14-11 agenda, and there will be still another discussion. Practicing Attorney - Selectman Kurtz should recuse himself from any discussion, decision, or action on this topic, now, and for as long as he is a member of this selectboard.

The MMA Municipal Officer's Manual states in its section on "Conflict of Interest", p. 16:
"All municipal officers have been sworn into public office to serve the interests of the public as a whole and in the municipal official there is a vested public trust."

The appearance of impropriety is at issue in both cases. Our selectboard needs to step up and take action, and not to allow this sort of thing to continue. A selectman who quotes the law at every turn should also be held accountable to it.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

This two-part dilemma

Continuing in the vein of the leadership of our municipal machine, and the implications of having some or not, TPR posting on 2-13-11, The effect of leadership, referred to a "2-part dilemma" happening in Paris. The multifaceted issue (currently promoted to full blown crisis in town) was not only (1) the decision itself; (2) how the decision was - or was not - being made for ATV use of one specific public road in Paris; but (3) the additional effect of fallout from obviously ineffective decision making on the part of the selectboard.

The matter has progressed far beyond one simple black and white decision. It becomes clearer and clearer that the whole town has a stake in what precedent is set here. A radically different approach is going to have to be considered in order to move forward.

All of the above compromises only part two of the dilemma.

Part one as the 2-13 article stated, was "how the decision makers - our selectboard - function in general."

Consider the role - and responsibility - of each member of our Paris selectboard. Each has one fifth of the power granted to the whole board as it (the board) makes decisions that voters hope will be for the good of the whole town.

Even though individual members bring their own experiences and perspectives to board deliberations, any final decision should be made in the light of what's best for the whole town. Otherwise we end up with the ragged operation of Paris' previous select board - that made no pretense whatsoever of motives beyond special interests and bullying tactics.

There need to be checkpoints, question-askers, standards constantly being evaluated in the board's operation, to insure things proceed with whole board knowledge and cooperation for the good of the whole town. Otherwise the leadership role of each board member becomes ineffective, leaving the possibility for an individual (or, in the case of last year's board, more than one individual) to respond to interests that are not always whole-town-oriented.

Our board has one member who is also a practicing attorney. Is that a good thing or a less than good thing? It would depend how that skill is applied in his role as a selectman. [editor's note: TPR's 2-13 article offered a "what-if:" using "background experience skills to take action in a way that could be interpreted as choosing sides in an argument that affects the whole town"]

This lawyer-board member was elected June 2010, running unopposed; there was no mandate saying the voters wanted a lawyer on the board to run the board and influence its decisions. This individual was elected to be merely 1/5 of everyone else. His skill and opinions aside, his responsibility was - and is - to work up front with his fellow board members, no rules applying to him any differently than anyone else.

Yet, according to a matter referred to in emails between 2 board members in a front page article in the Advertiser Democrat 2-24-11, "ATV battle getting ugly" this individual does not deny meeting - in his law office - with certain members of the ATV group in question. There is no way to know what actually transpired, of course; but, one could wonder if it was coincidence that both the 2-24 Advertiser Democrat article, as well as a Sun Journal article 2-25-11, "ATV club member says he might sue Paris Board of Selectmen" quote those ATV members using the s-u-e word?

Emails are public record. Clearly the Advertiser Democrat isn't the only one to have seen them. One has to assume that other board members have also seen them. Was the whole board part of this plan for the lawyer-selectman to meet in his law office? Why would a whole board sabotage what appeared to be a straightforward discussion toward a solution that would serve the whole town and not just a special interest group - on either side of the issue? (Even if the decision-making process could have been more thoroughly prepared and executed....)

Was the decision to meet with these club members a whole board decision? Or was the meeting initiated by the lawyer himself? If this meeting was an action taken only by the lawyer-selectman, then he has run roughshod over Title 30-A M.R.S.A.§2635 which directs the board of selectmen to act as a body in "any matter relating to the welfare of the town."

In the 2-14 Advertiser Democrat article, in response to his colleague's observation that he had "given the appearance of representing them [the specific ATV owners] about a legal issue," this lawyer-selectman responded "My actions might appear that way, but..".

Consider what the Municipal Officers Manual published by the Maine Municipal Association has to say on the topic of conflict of interest, (citing Title 30-A M.R.S.A.§2605), specifically as it relates to appearance of impropriety: "...a board member would be well advised to avoid even the appearance of a conflict...in order to maintain the public's confidence in the board's work."

[editor's note: Ironically, MMA legal opinions have not always appeared highly regarded in this lawyer-selectman's public discourse. Yet, it is for MMA that he is insisting questions be crafted to provide an opinion involving the legality of selectboard actions on the matter. He stated during the 2-14 meeting: "...we will take it upon ourselves to get a legal opinion from MMA,..... I think that opinion is going to go a long way in clarifying..If what we did is perfectly legal that's going to put a different light on it." ]

OK, selectboard. This is a problem of board function that needs to be addressed. And it needs to be addressed in public - because there has been enough of what feels like behind closed doors. More and more, the public is watching.