Sixteen candidates – including former city councilors looking to return to city government – are vying to fill seven seats on the Biddeford City Council.
The race comes at a time when many candidates say they are concerned about taxes and want to help guide the future of the former mill town. Biddeford, the largest city in York County, has seen economic development activity in the downtown mill district in the last couple years and more is expected as the city prepares to market riverfront property that formerly housed the Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash incinerator.
Ward 3 Councilor Brad Cote is running unopposed for a second term. Councilor Michael Ready is running unopposed for the Ward 7 seat. Councilor Richard Rhames is not seeking reelection to his at-large seat, leaving more room for five candidates to run for two seats.
Councilor Michael Swanton is seeking a second term representing Biddeford’s coastal neighborhoods. He is challenged by Ronald Peaker, a former city councilor and school committee member who frequently speaks at city meetings.
Swanton, a 61-year-old plumber, said he doesn’t think he performed well during his first year on the council, but now that the “very steep learning curve” has flattened out, he is confident he can best represent the needs of his ward. Though he said he is embarrassed that he couldn’t stop tax increases during his first term, Swanton would spend the next two years looking for ways to save money and avoid further tax hikes.
“We need to start cutting staff,” he said. “Ten years ago we had 3,000 kids in school; this year we had 2,500. It seems to me we need to start thinking about consolidating and closing a school.”
Swanton said he also wants to see the city hire a real estate broker to list the former MERC property to a larger market, “rather than wait for someone to stumble into the economic development office in Biddeford.”
Peaker, who retired from a senior management position with an auto manufacturer, said he is looking to return to the council after a decade away because of the city’s “constant spiral of runaway spending and tax increases.”
City taxpayers have seen a 13 percent increase in the past two years.
“I’ve gone through this before and the majority of the old timers running this time have the same problem, that the council is spending too much money irresponsibly,” he said.
Peaker said the city also needs to develop a comprehensive strategy for economic development.
“This city has absolutely no idea where it’s going and that’s the problem,” he said.
Two-term Councilor David Bourque faces a challenge for the Ward 2 seat from political newcomer Andrew Russell and John A. McCurry Jr., who served on the City Council from 1999 to 2007.
Bourque, a 57-year-old bar owner, believes the city is headed in a good direction with more economic development activity, and wants to continue to help guide Biddeford as the MERC site is developed and plans for a downtown parking garage are discussed. But Bourque said he also is focused on getting the municipal budget under control to avoid further tax increases.
“I think we need to work to get the taxes down or at least keep them from expanding,” Bourque said.
McCurry, 56, previously served eight years on the council, including two as council president. He said he decided to run for another term after he was asked by residents concerned about spending and taxes.
“Their biggest concern is that the spending is out of control,” he said. “They don’t see their paychecks going up. You see everyone else cutting, but the city keeps spending. We need to really dig into the budget and figure out where to save.”
McCurry said he wants to make sure taxpayer money isn’t used to fund a downtown parking garage, which is still in the conceptual phase. City officials have said parking meters could be installed downtown in the future, which McCurry sees as detrimental to the area.
Andrew Russell, who has not previously run for office in Biddeford, did not respond to interview requests.
Councilor Melissa Bednarowski is not seeking a second term, leaving the Ward 4 seat open for either Robert Quattrone Jr. or Dominic Deschambault, both Biddeford natives and political newcomers.
Quattrone, 41, said he is making his first run for political office to become more involved in his hometown and make sure residents of his ward have a voice in decisions about the city’s future. A boiler operator and father of two, Quattrone began speaking out at council meetings last year when he opposed the purchase of the site of MERC, where he worked.
Quattrone said as a city councilor he would focus on bringing economic development to all areas of the city and addressing the tax rate.
“The issue that is most important to people I talk to is that taxes seem to be just running away,” he said. “Taxes are outpacing our incomes in this town and things are getting to a breaking point.”
Deschambault, a 29-year-old customer service representative for Time Warner, is making his first run for office, following in the footsteps of his mother, Susan Deschambault, a former city councilor.
“At this point, we’re at a crossroads like a lot of mill towns in the Northeast. I think we have a lot of great opportunities to make the transition and enter into a new phase of the economy and the way in which the city should be operated,” he said. “I understand the history of where we come from and what we’ve done to get here.”
If elected, Deschambault said he would like to focus on job growth and take a closer look at the budget to see if there are excesses that could be eliminated to avoid tax increases.
Bob Mills, who since 2007 has represented the ward that encompasses much of downtown, this year faces a challenge from Carol Boisjoly.
Mills said he wants another term on the council to continue working on a variety of projects, including economic development and the future of the MERC property.
“I’ve seen in other communities how development and the economy held things back. In Biddeford we suffered that tremendously, but we’re moving forward with new businesses and new ideas,” Mills said.
Mills did not support the budget during the last cycle and wants to look for ways to streamline services and increase revenue.
Boisjoly, 57, a former nurse now on disability, ran unsuccessfully for Mills’ seat two years ago. She said she is running again to give voice to many in the community who are overlooked, including those who are homeless.
She would like to see the city create a homeless shelter, find alternative ways to fund infrastructure improvements and ensure Biddeford is seen as a business-friendly community.
“I’m all for the future of Biddeford, but we also can’t forget about the present,” she said. “We need to take care of problems before we take that giant step into the future.”
Council President Rick Laverriere, who has served four consecutive terms representing Ward 6, faces his first challenge since he was elected to the City Council. Roger Hurtubise, a former city councilor, said he is looking to unseat Laverriere and control spending through fiscal responsibility.
“People want a change in the administration. They are fed up with their taxes being raised the last two years,” said Hurtubise, a 68-year-old retired customer service representative. “It’s almost like an open credit card right now. The people are tired of the taxes and they’re tired of what’s going on in the city.”
Laverriere, 57, said he wants to continue to move the city forward and is not afraid to make tough decisions.
He said he remains focused on making Biddeford a pro-business community and said the MERC property purchase was “huge” for the city.
“I think that was the biggest thing I’ve been involved in and feel the best about during all my years on the City Council,” he said.
Laverriere said he would support a downtown parking garage only if it was not paid for in a way that would increase property taxes, and would prefer the project was voted on by all residents instead of just city councilors.
A group of experienced candidates is running for two at-large seats to represent the entire city on the Biddeford City Council.
Incumbents Roch Angers and Richard Rhames are joined in the race by political newcomer Daniel Parenteau and former City Councilors James “Jim” Emerson, Marc Lessard and Clement A. Fleurent.
Rhames, 68, said the current council has made important strides in repairing damage from neglect caused by lack of funding for infrastructure maintenance and improvements, but more needs to be done to fix roads and city buildings. The council also successfully got rid of the Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash incinerator, leading to redevelopment projects developers say they would not otherwise pursue, he said.
Rhames said his opponents’ focus on cutting taxes is “magical thinking” that will not meet the current and future needs of the city. He believes the city needs to invest in infrastructure like a parking garage, as both Portland and Lewiston have done to spur economic development. Modest increases in the mil rate would not have been needed if previous councils had made small increases to cover increasing costs, he said.
“This is the best council I can remember and I’ve been paying attention for three decades,” Rhames said. “We looked at where the city was and we tried to do the right thing as stewards of this stuff that we, the people of Biddeford, own together. We did the best we could under some very tough circumstances.”
Angers, 60, who has served five non-consecutive terms, said he is passionate about his hometown and wants to continue to serve the city during a period of transition. He said he wants to find solutions to hold the line on taxes while ensuring Biddeford is sending out the right message about its future.
“(Biddeford) has so much vitality and so many good things that are going on,” he said.
Jim Emerson, a current school committee member who served on the City Council from 2007 to 2011, said he has demonstrated a consistent dedication of time and energy to his adopted hometown, which he would like to continue.
He said the city needs to focus on retaining existing businesses and attracting new ones.
“We need to proactively market opportunities that have the potential to relieve the pressure on our residential taxpayers,” Emerson, 59, said. “We also need to ensure we don’t lose sight of what we have in the quest for development. Biddeford has a great existing and diverse economic portfolio that we must not neglect.”
Fleurent, 78, previously served eight years on the City Council and two years on the Planning Board. He said he was asked to run for council by residents who are worried about taxes, a concern he shares. He believes the city is top heavy on salaries and would favor instituting a salary cap.
“I want to stay involved and represent those who are not capable or who are intimidated to speak before the council,” Fleurent said.
Lessard, 50, previously served 10 years on the City Council, including six years as council president, before he left city government to focus on his family. His concern about the city’s tax rate and whether Biddeford is being run efficiently enough prompted his run for office. He wants to ensure tax rates are competitive to spur business growth and job creation.
“We’ve slid and gone in the wrong direction. We need to make the city more efficient,” Lessard said. “Our tax rate puts us at a disadvantage when companies come to the city to do their business. They can set up business across the river or in other places and the cost of their taxes is lower.”
Parenteau, the only newcomer in the race for at-large seats, is a 50-year-old business strategist and consultant who wants to be “an advocate for moving Biddeford from good to great.”
A fiscal conservative who wants to approach the budget with a long-term plan, Parenteau also is focused on the city’s economic development activity.
“Historically, the City Council has not played a strong enough role in guiding economic development,” he said. “Without question, (the council) should play an extremely active role in guiding and shaping the city’s economic landscape. This is critical to how Biddeford controls growth and executes on creating things like tax stabilization and general economic prosperity.”
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:firstname.lastname@example.org