Ballot proposals to fund significant projects at taxpayers' expense were rejected Tuesday in several towns in southern Maine, reflecting voters' sentiments in tough economic times.
"Voters are really voting their anxieties about the economy in these elections," said Charles Colgan, an economist at the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine. "They may not be saying these are bad ideas, they just don't think now is the time to do it."
Residents in Gorham, Falmouth and Regional School Unit 5 -- Freeport, Durham and Pownal -- made it clear they aren't ready to pay.
Eighty percent of Gorham voters rejected borrowing as much as $3 million to build a synthetic-turf field and improve Narragansett Elementary School and the town's public safety building.
Voters in Freeport supported a $3 million stadium complex for the high school, but opposition from voters in Durham and Pownal tipped the scales and defeated the proposal.
A $5.65 million redevelopment project for the Plummer-Motz and Lunt elementary schools in Falmouth was rejected by a margin of 161 votes.
Gorham Town Manager David Cole got the clear message he was hoping for Tuesday. Had the vote been close, he said, town councilors might have considered pursuing the proposed capital projects.
With an overwhelming majority opposed, Cole said, "I think the council will simply move on."
The message was less clear to Falmouth officials, who must decide what to do with the school buildings, which will be vacant when a new elementary school opens in town this fall.
"I can't really speculate why the voters went one way or another," said Town Council Vice Chairman Teresa Pierce.
Proponents had a vision of a "town campus" in the $5.65 million proposal to convert Motz into a community center, renovate Lunt into a new home for the Falmouth Memorial Library and fix Plummer so it could be leased to a private group or company.
Opponents questioned whether it would be an appropriate use of town funds, whether the library really needed to double in size, and whether the buildings should be sold.
The council will likely revisit the issue at its first meeting in July, said Town Manager Nathan Poore. On Wednesday, council Chairman Tony Payne said the council will have to discern what the vote meant before determining how the properties should be used or sold.
In Freeport, stadium supporters had already begun a private fundraising drive to lower the cost of a possible bond. With the borrowing proposal rejected, the fundraising committee will likely meet next week to evaluate what to do next, said RSU 5 Athletic Director Craig Sickels
Sickels said the economy clearly played a role in voters' decisions. "What it boiled down to was dollars and cents," he said.
The overall vote was 1,350-884 against the stadium proposal, with Durham and Pownal residents in opposition.
The proposal to borrow $3 million would have added $31.20 per year to the tax bill for a $200,000 home in Freeport, $30 for Durham taxpayers and $10 for Pownal taxpayers.
John Ricker, a Durham representative on the RSU 5 Board of Directors, said Wednesday that he heard comments indicating this isn't the right time to embark on such a project.
"The economy is not booming at the moment, so why increase our spending?" Ricker said.
Colgan said the irony of the votes is that now is the time to complete capital improvements, because of low interest rates and construction costs.
"But voters don't see it that way. Voters tend to see it from their own individual point of view and their anxiousness of the economy, borrowing money and their taxes," Colgan said.
Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers contributed to this report.
Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: