SCARBOROUGH – With six candidates vying for three open seats, the field for Scarborough Town Council this campaign season presents voters with a wide range of options. As one might expect, that translated into a record turnout for an Oct. 11 debate at town hall, sponsored by the Scarborough Community Chamber.
“This really is the largest audience we’ve had in the six years I’ve been coming to these,” said Art Dillon, president of the Chamber’s board.
That said, the crowd amounted to about 20 people. But, as event moderator Kevin Freeman pointed out, the annual forum is played “on an almost endless loop” on Scarborough Community Television right up until Election Day, giving several thousand residents the chance to hear the issues raised, and to rule on their favorite answers.
“We hear from a lot of people every year that they’re really glad we do this,” said Dillon. “They say it really helps them to make up their minds.”
However this year’s race shakes out, the council is guaranteed at least two fresh faces. Only one incumbent councilor is in the running, thanks to term limits that prevent Carol Rancourt from seeking a fourth consecutive term.
This year’s crop of candidates is split into two packs. Two hopefuls – retired attorney Bill Donovan, 65, and stay-at-home mom Kate St. Clair, 35 – are grappling to fill the final two years on the term of Karen D’Andrea, who resigned Aug. 13 to focus on her nonprofit work.
Donovan, who specialized in real estate and municipal law during a 40-year career in Manchester, N.H., said he wants to apply that experience to the town he’s called home since 2006.
“I think we can get more out of our budget than we are,” he said.
St. Clair, perhaps best-known to Current readers from coverage of fundraisers held to combat the lung and digestive system diseases of her youngest child, Kyle, age 7, said she “wants to give back” to the community that has “done so much” for her family.
“This town has really pulled together for us,” she said. “We’ve had a really hard time and I just thought this was a great opportunity for me to put my hand in a little bit.”
The final four candidates are locked in a battle for two full-term posts up for grabs this year. They include incumbent Jessica Holbrook, 31, owner of a hair salon in Old Orchard Beach, who is the only native of Scarborough in the race, as well as local contractor Paul Andriulli, 56, retired IBM manager Ed Blaise, 69, and Maine Medical Center executive Chris Coon, 45.
Joking that she is a “glutton for punishment,” Holbrook touted her “uniqueness” to the race as a fifth-generation resident and small-business owner. Andriulli, who just missed earning a spot on the council last year, falling shy by 79 votes, said he’d “just like to contribute” to Scarborough, following his retirement from 20 years as a volunteer firefighter in town. Meanwhile, Blaise and Coon both sounded notes of fiscal caution as their incentive for filing nomination papers. Coon, in particular, said he was stung to action by this year’s initial school budget proposal, which included an 11.3 percent hike in the local cost for public education.
“I thought perhaps my financial planning skills might be of use and that might be the best way to give back to my community,” he said.
“I think we’re out of control as far as our tax bills are concerned,” said Blaise. “Our taxes are going up at astronomical rates, way above the cost of living. That’s going to start to drive people out of here.”
Environment vs. economy
Asked how well Scarborough balances economic development with environmental protection and what, if anything, it could do better, all six candidates praised the town’s efforts as a steward of the marsh and other sensitive areas, but called for what St. Clair termed, “a more happy medium,” in terms of jobs.
“Since 2001 there have been only 1,200 jobs that have come into Scarborough,” she said. “Those numbers just seem way too low to me and there has to be a reason behind that.”
“I believe the town does a relatively poor job of encouraging economic development,” said Blais. “It’s my understanding the town is not very receptive to new business,” he added, citing the infamous flap with Famous Dave’s over the color of its roof, and the signage set-to that that allegedly chased Cracker Barrel to South Portland.
“We have a duty to protect our environment,” said Coon. “That’s one of the things that makes us so special. But we do need to do better at being business friendly. There are a lot of hurdles to get over compared to other communities around here.”
Andriulli said he felt the town “does balance it well,” citing strong, well-crafted local regulations. The real bugaboo, he said, is the state. “In anything with DEP involved, you run the gauntlet,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s a question of one or the other,” said Donovan, praising last year’s passage by the council of an organic pest-control policy, while calling on “broadening the tax base with environmentally friendly businesses.”
Holbrook noted that the town has a long-range planning committee, a spin-off from the comprehensive planning implementation committee. “Around here, we like long committee names,” she joked, “but we are encouraging some growth where it is appropriate.”
Of the six candidates, only Blaise publicly opposed a $900,000 bond on the Nov. 6 ballot for the purchase of a ladder truck, saying, “There are tons of different alternatives, including a lot of used fire trucks out there.”
Donovan also questioned the cost, but did not say he’d vote against it, while Coon said he’d support it, but wished there had been more public discussion of the need during budget season. Meanwhile, both Holbrook and Andriulli said there is a “definite need.”
“These days, you don’t just get a standard truck,” said Andriulli, defending the price tag. “It’s all about technology. You need the best of everything on it and everything costs money.”
Holbrook pointed out that the state of the town’s fire fleet has a direct impact on homeowner insurance rates, predicting many homeowners will save there what it costs per household to buy the new vehicle.
St. Clair said she was willing to defer to the fire department on its request, while defending the town’s long-term debt, pegged in a 2011 benchmarking study at $68 million – six times that of each of six surrounding towns.
“Every town has debt,” she said. “Everybody wants something. That’s the way it is. You can find places to cut and trim but you can’t take away things that keep our town safe.”
Andriulli also defended borrowing, saying that while the town’s debt ratio may be high, it also has “one of the lowest mill rates around,” at $13.93 per $1,000 of property valuation.
“Nobody likes debt, but in bad times you get the best bang for you buck,” he said.
However, both Coon and Donovan called recent refinancing of outstanding debt, which allowed the town to borrow $39.1 million to rebuild Wentworth Intermediate School at no impact to the tax rate, a ploy that worked “this time only.”
“That [opportunity] is not likely to occur again for the next few years,” said Coon. “The debt is too high and we need to do something pretty soon to get that under control.”
“We need to restrain spending to a manner that’s in keeping with the citizens’ ability to pay,” said Donovan.
“This town just spends and spends and spends. We’ve got to put a cap on it,” said Blaise.
Meanwhile, Holbrook pointed out that any attempt to borrow more than $400,000 is always run by voters, who can brush aside any big bond.
“Of course, I don’t like how indebted we are,” she said. “But it’s the position you find yourself in and, as a councilor, you just deal with it as best you can.”
Oak Hill congestion
On a question about the viability of the Oak Hill intersection at Route 1, candidates where asked to gauge their support for spending to “bring in more bus service.”
None gave a direct yes or no to ponying up local tax dollars, but three – Andriulli, Blaise and Donovan – expressed doubt that any mass transit system can work in Scarborough, due to its rural, decentralized layout.
“It’d just go up and down Route 1,” said Blaise. “I don’t see them developing routes to satisfy everybody’s needs.”
“I would be surprised if that would be affordable,” said Donovan.
“We’re all in such a rush all the time, we don’t have the patience to stand there and wait for a bus to take us someplace,” said Andriulli. “It’s sad to say it, but mass transit in a rural area like this just isn’t going to work.”
St. Clair came the closest to supporting an expansion of local bus service, saying, “We have to try and meet the needs to all people that are here. We’re all paying taxes.”
The other candidates focused their answers on Oak Hill, with Coon saying Scarborough needs a “pedestrian-friendly town center.”
“One thing I noticed while putting up signs as a candidate is that crossing Route 1 is a pretty challenging experience,” he joked. “I don’t recommend it.”
“If we are going to focus on [Oak Hill] being a town center, there is a lot of work that needs to be done before that happens,” said St. Clair.
Holbrook said the town’s newly formed transportation committee has begun that work, but also pointed out the number of traffic plans already under the town’s belt.
“There’s been a lot of studies through the years and they’re all kind of discombobulated and not connected,” said Holbrook, noting how economic reality can whittle away at grand designs.
“We do what we can as we go along,” she said.
Almost all of the candidates spoke of the need to create a plan and prioritize available options, although Andriulli observed that kind of hand-wringing has been the order of the day for the entire quarter century he’s lived in town. The end result, said Blaise, is that traffic in Oak Hill remains “a zoo.”
Still, though he belabored an investment in buses, Blaise said money spent on Oak Hill may be well worth it, even if the outlay makes little economic sense.
“Instead of a return on investment, what you want is a return on satisfaction,” he said.
Although no candidate expressed a specific plan to keep the Oak Hill intersection “from failing,” Donovan stressed any plan must he shopped to local residents.
“When you have action plans that affect a neighborhood, you really need to listen to the neighborhood,” he said.
Asked to weigh in on relaxed zoning along Haigis Parkway, initiated this past year in an attempt to jumpstart development there, all six candidates applauded the effort, with St. Clair calling it, “the best thing that could have happened.”
“We had to look at what we could do for growth,” said Holbrook. “As far as I’m concerned, there can’t be enough business development down there happening soon enough.”
“We needed to do something, that was clearly land that wasn’t being utilized,” said Coon.
“Taking steps to allow businesses that otherwise might not have been appropriate in a restrictive zoning space was the right thing to do,” said Donovan, adding, “I fully expect Haigis Parkway to be a considerable success five years from now.”
“It’s good to see that the town had the hindsight to say, ‘Hey, we’re in competition with the entire state,’” said Andriulli. “You have to sweeten the pot. You need to not lower your standards, but just make it a little but easier for businesses to thrive.”
Only Blaise struck a discordant note, questioning, if not construction of the parkway itself, at least how it’s presented to the public.
“My biggest concern is that when I drive down Haigis Parkway, it’s about the ugliest piece of land I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. Cutting down trees along the route would have been a better investment, he said, than the “stupid monuments” installed last year as part of a $2.35 million overhaul of the parkway intersection with Route 1.
“Lord knows why we spent money to do that,” said Blaise.
Although the school board controls line items when building a budget for public education, the council must OK the final tally. In 2010 and 2011, when the council tried to hold the line, the school department shed more than 40 jobs. This year, the council put up less resistance and the $37.4 million budget jumped $1.7 million overall, with a $2.9 million hike in the local share, due to withering state and federal subsidies.
Asked where they draw the line on the bottom line, all candidates save St. Clair said school spending must to be reined in. Noting that Scarbrough’s school system was “one major reason” why she moved to town, St. Clair alone intimated a willingness to acquiesce to the school board.
“We elect them for a reason and I have faith in them,” she said. “They are the experts in that area and I am vey confident in taking my direction from them.”
All other candidates stressed support for education, including Donovan, who said he comes from a family of educators, but tempered their enthusiasm in light of an uncertain economic future.
“Teacher salaries are very important, but maintaining control that allows the middle class to survive in these difficult times is an equally important goal,” said Donovan.
“I am a big supporter of the schools. However, that doesn’t mean they have an open checkbook,” said Coon, who faulted poor financial planning for the fiscal cliff that appeared when federal stimulus money dried up this year.
Holbrook praised her peers on the council for crafting a “flat” municipal budget to counter the increase in school spending, while also noting changes to the most recent union contract that amended annual salary hikes.
“Hopefully, in the future you won’t have such outstanding increases on just pay scales and you’ll have more of a technical and education budget coming out of the schools,” she said.
Andriulli said such negotiations are the key to Scarborough’s future. “It’s all about trust,” he said. “Everybody has to put everything up on the table and be truthful all the time.”
Meanwhile, Blaise suggested the creation of a standing joint budget committee, made up of members from both the Town Council and the school board.
“From everything I hear, this school department is A-1 tops,” he said. “But we have a townwide problem. We don’t know how to manage money. We don’t know how to control expenditures. We don’t know how to identify inefficiencies. That has to be solutioned.”
In light of ongoing tension at Higgins Beach and a lawsuit last year regarding potential development of Sprague Corp. property near Scarborough Beach State Park, candidates were asked how best to juggle the need for public access with respect for private property rights.
St. Clair questioned why Higgins Beach is so often singled out from other beaches in town.
“I don’t think that’s how it should be,” she said. “Everything we do down there should be treated as we do in other areas.”
However, both Holbrook and Andriulli said each beach in town has “its own little issues.” Andriulli sided with property owners, saying, “These little communities should have some say in what goes on in their neighborhood,” while Holbrook stumped for public access. “I don’t believe the only people who should be able to visit our beaches are the ones with the money in their back pockets to do so,” she said.
Coon tread a middle line, saying, “Taxpayers should have access to the beaches but we should make that impact as small as possible.”
Donovan sided with Andriulli, saying, “When you start to intrude upon the neighborhood you really ought to favor the residents,” but went further by suggesting there should be different levels of access to parking spots at Higgins Beach.
“I think you ought to favor Scarborough residents,” he said. “They should have first shot because they are the ones paying the bills around here.”
For his part, Blaise seemed disinclined to believe the issues at Higgins Beach, or any other public access area, is as big a problem as it’s been made out to be.
“Most of the time, I don’t care what beach you go to, you’ll find a parking space,” he said. “I think it’s all blown out of he water.
In closing comments, Donovan pushed his passion for recreation and historical architecture, as a way to better introduce himself to the public. He pledged that, if elected, his three priorities would be to “work hard,” “listen to people,” and to “be accessible.”
His opponent, St. Clair, acknowledged that her formal education pales in comparison to his, but said her “very strong feelings” for the town make her a worthy candidate.
“I want to be able to stay in this town,” she said. “I want my friends to be able to afford to stay in this town and in doing that, I want to be able to provide the amenities Scarborough has always had.
“I may not have as strong a background as everyone here but I have a deep love for this town and I would work extremely hard,” said St. Clair.
Among the four candidates competing for two full-term seats, both Coon and Blaise pointed to their financial backgrounds, with Coon stressing his long-range planning abilities and Blaise focusing on his organizational skills.
Andriulli cited his experience as a small business owner, saying it gives him skills as “a mediator, a problem solver and someone with a little common sense.”
For her part, Holbrook simply asked voters to return her to office, saying, “I look forward to the opportunity to do it again.”
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