PHILLIPS – Thanks to the town manager volunteering his time, the town office will be open Tuesday.
But that’s about it.
Selectmen and department heads met with Town Manager Lynn White for an emergency selectmen meeting held Monday evening, a few hours before the local government officially shuts down. With citizen safety as the central concern, selectmen concluded that the town may face significant challenges throughout the period of municipal standstill; a period guaranteed to last until at least July 12.
Town officials have scheduled a new meeting for July 12, hoping to do what couldn’t be done last Saturday. Pass a budget.
Residents unexpectedly voted to adjourn a town budget meeting held on June 28 before spending articles were considered. This left the town with only two days of funding remaining, before the fiscal year ends Monday at midnight. After that, legal counsel has informed White that not a single dollar could be spent by the town for any reason, emergency or otherwise.
“It’s been a bit of a busy day,” White admitted to selectmen, having dealt with calls from lawyers, municipal officials, department employees and reporters. “Basically, we have no authority to spend anything for anything.”
Residents concerned with a variety of issues, from the timing of the budget report to the availability of information to the projected tax increase of 4 mil, voted against Article 3 at the budget meeting last Saturday. That article asked voters to allow the town to appropriate more than the property tax levy limit of $256,076, an amount established through a formula and required by the state’s LD1 law. Similar articles, with different limits, appear on every town meeting warrant. Often times, they pass with little debate.
The actual budget proposed totaled $1.7 million, up from the previous full fiscal year’s budget of $1.55 million. The proposed budget’s increase was chiefly due to the $692,000 MSAD 58 allotment, which was already approved earlier this month. The MSAD 58 budget was up by an additional $117,000 this fiscal year, as the district faces lower and lower state subsidies as enrollment numbers decrease. Therefore, the municipal portion of the budget was essentially a zero-sum increase.
After LD1 failed to pass, there ensued a short debate about whether the meeting should continue. As $256,076 represents less that a quarter of the proposed municipal budget, selectmen and others successfully pressed for an adjournment. This motion was approved, and the meeting ended.
White gave instructions to shut down everything Monday. The transfer station, which serves Madrid and other communities within the Unorganized Territories, will not be open. The state Bureau of Motor Vehicles and Fish & Game department have been told that the town office cannot conduct licensing business. Road work, desperately needed on some Phillips’ roadways, will not occur. All 20 employees who serve the town have been laid off, having been paid for their remaining vacation time, if any.
“Everyone, including myself, is being laid off,” White said. “I’ll be here at the office, but as a volunteer.”
Unfortunately, other employees cannot volunteer their time, as liability insurance may not cover them as they are not in fact “town employees.” To be considered town employees, they would have to work for nothing, a subtle difference from volunteering, which would nullify their ability to collect unemployment. White said that he is continuing to seek information on the insurance issue.
He also has asked the county commissioners, which will likely consider the issue at Tuesday’s meeting, to provide fire protection for the town. The burden of protecting the town could fall on the Strong and Rangeley departments, among others, if the commissioners so decide. Phillip’s own department typically provides service for other, surrounding communities and a source of mutual aid, and it remains to be seen how this will affect general coverage in northern Franklin County.
Local Emergency Management Agency Director James Gould said that he was empowered by the county and state agencies to utilize additional resources in the case of a true emergency, despite the lack of local funding. However some situations, such as the one caused by the closure of the local dump, do not fall under the issue of “public safety” and therefore cannot be addressed by Gould.
“That’s not going to take long to be a mess,” Selectman Stephen Charles said. He went on to note that it was unlikely the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, of which he serves as a corporal, or the state police would post someone at the dump to prevent people from simply dropping their trash. Furthermore, he said, it was doubtful the sheriff could even spare the manpower for additional patrols, burdened as the department is with several issues already.
Another issue is road construction. Franklin County was again lashed Monday by a series of brief, yet intense, thunderstorms, and selectmen are concerned that roads, already in dubious condition, could be further damaged by the rainy season. However, the town cannot replace, repair or even attempt to mitigate damage without employees or budget, and other than keeping emergency services running, Gould can do nothing. Longer term, White expressed concern that contractors would be found to do reconstruction when and if funding becomes available. The summer is typically the busiest road construction season.
“This just wrecks us, construction-wise,” White said.
Selectmen intend to send the same budget back to voters at a meeting scheduled for July 12 at 9 a.m. at the Phillips Middle School gymnasium. They are hopeful that the extra time will give people time to consider the budget more carefully, and give them a chance to contact White or the selectmen with their questions.
If on July 12, which is the earliest a new budget hearing can be legally held, residents again vote to not fund the town government, other services would be effected.
For its part, NorthStar EMS ambulance executive director David Robie responded by saying that, “The contract calls for semi-annual payments in April and October. The town of Phillips is paid current and NorthStar will continue to respond for the citizens of Phillips certainly at least through October no matter what,” he said and added, “We have confidence that Phillips will resolve its budget issues and so we have every expectation that we will continue to respond to ambulance calls from our NorthStar Phillips base well into the future.”