BIDDEFORD — On Aug. 18, the Biddeford City Council gave initial approval to two referendum questions for the November ballot for bonds totalling $20 million.

The public will get to say what they think about the bonds at a public hearing Tuesday, Sept 1, after which the council will take a final vote on whether or not to put the bond questions before voters on Nov. 3

One question asks citizens to approve $10 million for separating and improving the city’s storm and sanitary sewer systems. The other requests another $10 million bond to fund various building and infrastructure improvements including: $3.75 million for improvements to roads, sidewalks and drainage systems; $3.75 million for repairs and improvements to City Hall; $1.25 million for repairs and improvements to the J. Richard Martin Community Center building; $500,000 for repairs and improvements to other city buildings; and $750,000 for repairs and improvements to city properties other than buildings.

The council began discussing the bonds at a special meeting July 27.

On Aug. 18, all but one councilor, Councilor Stephen St. Cyr, voted in favor of the bond for sewer and storm water separation. The city is mandated by a consent agreement with both the state and federal government to conduct this work.

Council President John McCurry said he supports the bond because “I think we have to do this, it’s part of the mandates to keep us in good graces. I think we all need to support this and I hope the question we write will do what Councilor (Norman) Belanger said the last time ‘we need this to pass’ because it’s federal and state. We need to make this happen so I wholeheartedly support this.”

Although Councilor Robert Quattrone said he was “reluctant” to support the bond he would vote for it because “I do see we’re getting pressured by the state to make sure we get this done.” However, he said, “I don’t see the urgency of the state demanding from us that we get this done when they don’t usually fulfill their obligations.”

While he has supported bonds in the past, St. Cyr said he doesn’t think this is the time to ask taxpayers to approve a large, $10 million bond.

“I could have supported the original proposal that was $5 million with the $2.5 million match,” St. Cyr said. “To me that makes the most sense, particularly given where we are in the pandemic. I’d be among those to acknowledge that the city does have a legal obligation but to be quite honest I don’t understand why the state is putting the pressure on us to get this done and done immediately. To me that indicates that they’re a little out of touch.”

“I also don’t fully understand why there isn’t federal and state money to go with this,” he said. “They’re putting pressure on us to do this and yet not providing any funds which leaves the entire payments be borne by the taxpayers and that’s what makes me most uncomfortable. We still have a very uncertain economy. The Maine unemployment rate has come down but it’s still relatively high … compared to a year ago. The federal unemployment rates have now been cut from $600 per person to $300. There are still a lot of businesses that have restrictions. People still not back to work. And yet we’re going to be asking all of these people to pay more. … So for me, the timing’s just off. I would be more interested and more willing to support this a year from now.”

Based on similar concerns, St. Cyr said, he would also like to put off for a year the proposed $10 million bond to pay for City Hall repairs, roads and more.

Although McCurry voted for the sewer and storm water separation bond, he said based on the reasons St. Cyr outlined he did not support the building and infrastructure bond.

Councilor Marc Lessard said he recognizes that the current economic situation is not good. However, he said, the work needs to be done and with today’s low interest rates it’s a good time to do so.

“As city councilors we need to decide whether these projects need to get done, are they something that are required in order to advance the city,” he said. “… If we believe that these projects need to be done, and eventually they will need to be done, then it would be prudent for us to be able to offer it out to the citizens for them to vote on it and for them to make the decision.

“I totally understand about the financial situation of the economy as it stands today,” Lessard said. “I don’t know that we’re going to be getting dramatically better soon. But I also look at the interest rates of where they are today and I think that by the time if this is approved I think we’ll be hitting the nail on the head where they’ll be lower costs to be able to do things. It’s extra bang for our buck. .. So in that case I think it’s the perfect time to be sending out a bond to the citizens. Let them make the decision. If they choose to support it great, if they don’t that’s great too but in the end it’s their decision.”

Councilor Amy Clearwater said she supports the bond because it’s time and it’s the “reponsible” thing to do.

“I recognize we are increasing the burden on folks,” Clearwater said, “and I think for me the reason I can justify and I have to vote in favor of this is that all the projects that we’re talking about in this bond package are cans that we’ve been kicking down the road. Even if you just think about City Hall and the community center, if we had fixed those when they began to deteriorate think of how much money we would have saved versus fixing them now. They longer we wait to do these things that are inevitable the more it costs us. … For me this is a matter of saying the buck stops with us.”

Now is the time to put out the bond, Councilor Norman Belanger said, because “I think that the (interest) rates are at a historical low at this point so if we wait a year we’re not going to be getting the same kind of deals that we can get now.”

Councilor Michael Ready said he also thought now was the time to go for bonds because other bonds will be paid off when payments on the proposed bonds would begin.

“The other point,” he said, “is that there isn’t one item on here … that we haven’t talked about and tried to figure out how to fund over the past year. … These are things in some cases we’ve been talking about for 20 years. … Everybody’s looking to wait next year and next year never comes.”

After passing his gavel, Mayor Alan Casavant spoke in favor of putting the bond on the ballot, noting that the language could be tweaked at when the council takes a final vote Sept. 1.

He said of the bond, “we’re going to be recommending paying for things that should have been done last year or five years ago or 10 years ago or whatever. … I suspect that every single one of you has heard from your constituents ‘when are you going to pave my road?’ While as you know we’re behind $33 million worth of repairs. … There’s never a good time. … There is never, ever, ever a good year in Biddeford to raise taxes because of the inherent concern about mil rate.”

The proposed bond was given initial approval, with Councilors St. Cyr, Quattrone and McCurry voting in opposition.

The council will hold a public hearing on the bonds at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1. A second reading and consideration of final action by the City Council will take place following the public hearing.

If passed by the council, the bonds will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot and voters will make the final decision.

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the City Council will not meet in person but will conduct the public hearing and meeting using Zoom, a video conference tool. The public will not be allowed to attend the meeting in person. However, the meeting may be viewed live on the City’s Public Access Channel 1301 or on the city website. Copies of the proposed orders are available on the city’s website. Questions or comments on the proposed orders may be submitted by e-mail to [email protected] or [email protected] Comments may also be submitted by phone by calling 207-284-9020 before 4 p.m. on the day of the meeting.

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