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With Town Meetings Off The Docket Due To COVID-19, Maine's Small Communities Seek Workarounds

COVID-19 forced an early end to the annual town meetings held in many smaller communities around Maine. That has complicated life for municipal officials. Kate Dufour is director of the State and Federal Relations Department at the Maine Municipal Association. Dufour tells Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz that the association has been talking with Mills administration officials about these issues, including when cities and towns collect property taxes.DUFOUR: Communities haven't been able to hold those town meetings, and so they can't set their upcoming tax dates and interest payments, nor can they, by state statute, retroactively impact something that has already been adopted. So, for example, if the taxes that were basically last year's taxes have the commitment date - or the due date has been set for, let's say, October of 2020, that can't be changed.

GRATZ: And you say this is an issue that has been discussed with the governor's office?

Yeah, we've been very fortunate that the governor has basically opened up a line of communication. And we meet or talk weekly with members of her administration to talk about the issues that municipal officials are feeding to us. And so we're keeping Governor Mills apprised through her staff of some of the changes communities could use through executive orders.

So the issue kind of is whether or not she might actually have the authority under the kinds of emergency orders she's been issuing to make these changes?

Correct. And we understand that there are many other interest groups asking her to make similar executive order types of changes. And so we know that she has a lot on her plate and we're hoping that this issue will be addressed shortly.

You did mention that you've been talking with the governor's office on a number of issues of interest to municipalities. Can you tell us what some of the others are?

Certainly. Because of the suspension - well, I keep referring to it as a suspension - of town meeting season because of the limits on large gatherings, many communities haven't had that opportunity. And in a community that has the town meeting as a legislative body, they are the decision makers. They decide what that budget's going to look like. They decide what ordinances may or may not be adopted and they establish policies. And so communities can't hold these meetings. And so we're looking to see whether or not there would be alternatives available to conduct local business outside of the town meeting. And so we're looking at, for an example, an all absentee referendum where only the municipal issues that generally show up on a town meeting warrant would be presented to the voters on a referendum ballot.

I mean, I suppose the only drawback is the town meeting, also - where it's held - provides for discussion of warrant articles. That's going to be more difficult, but I guess there's not much you can do if people can't get together.

That's correct. I mean, this is - these are different times. And in order to ensure that communities have the resources they need to continue to operate, we think we have to look at this kind of creatively. And I will add, although the governor's omnibus bill, COVID-related, that was adopted by the Legislature before they left, does include a provision that allows municipalities to continue to operate on the previous year's budget. But one of the problems is that communities are expending on COVID-19 related expenses that were not considered a year ago when towns were adopting their budgets. So they need authority for new types of spending. And there's also interest in getting some construction done. Our summer season, our construction season, is very short and there's an opportunity here to make investments in our infrastructure while people are staying at home.

Are you optimistic that many of these can be resolved over time?

I believe they can. It's just trying to figure out the right way to do it. Getting creative, but really, at the end of the day, protecting access - voter participation and access. That's paramount in anything that we we move forward with.

Kate Dufour, of the Maine Municipal Association, which is talking with the Mills administration about a variety of issues. They include giving cities and towns the power to move property tax deadlines, or do road projects, absent approval from annual town meetings that were cancelled due to COVID-19.