Council to vote on secession by month's end

By Jaime McLeod
CUMBERLAND ­ Less than a week after voters on Chebeague Island came out overwhelmingly in favor of secession from mainland Cumberland, some town councilors say they're ready to vote on whether to accept secession terms.

Councilor Jeff Porter told fellow councilors Monday that the only way to protect the town's interests is to vote soon and to vote no.

"I don't want the Legislature to get involved in this until the citizens of this town have had their say. I'm not willing to negotiate one paper clip until we've got a recorded vote," Porter said after moving to vote on the secession during the council's next meeting on Nov. 28. "Having a 'no' vote protects the town of Cumberland. It gives us a stronger negotiating foothold."

Porter was quick to point out that a vote of no would not prevent secession, an outcome which he described as inevitable.

Five councilors were in favor of holding the vote at the end of the month, with Councilors Steve Moriarty and Donna Damon opposed.

Damon, who is a resident of Chebeague Island, has spoken in favor of secession and said voting no this early in the process draws a line in the sand for islanders. Moriarty argued that it would be more prudent for councilors to allow up to six weeks for negotiations to unfold before acting.

If the council votes against allowing secession, the town and islanders will enter mediation for up to six months before the matter is automatically taken up by the state Legislature.

Herb Maine, president of the Chebeague Island Community Association, told councilors voting before the negotiations have even begun is premature.

"Assuming that we can't negotiate in good faith from the outset is a mistake," Maine said.

But others, most notably School Administrative District 51 board members John Aromando and Peter Bingham, agreed with Porter's position.

"You are at risk of being overtaken by Augusta on the terms of this secession. I urge you to take this up promptly and assume your rightful role in this process," Aromando said.

The secession movement gained momentum last February, after the SAD 51 board discussed the possibility of reducing the already tiny Chebeague Island School, a kindergarten through fifth-grade school that serves the island's 22 elementary school students, to one classroom, shipping its fourth- and fifth-grade students to the mainland.

If secession does take place, the result will be a more than $129,000 school tax shortfall that Town Manager Bill Shane said would ­ in a best-case scenario ­ result in a 17-cent increase in the property tax rate.

The costs to residents of North Yarmouth would be even greater, since that town's portion of the district's population would increase. Taxpayers there could be forced to foot an additional $300,000.

Shane's projections do not include possible tuition agreements between the island and SAD 51, because no negotiations to pay tuition are currently on the table.

Aromando said he believes that, beyond a possible concession to allow students now attending Greely middle or high schools to remain though graduation, it is highly unlikely that a relationship between the island and the district would continue after secession.

"We have a policy against accepting tuition students. We get requests weekly and we turn them all down. I don't see that policy changing. We just don't have the space. We have kids eating their lunches on the floor outside the cafeteria in the high school," Aromando said.

During public hearings prior to Election Day, Damon suggested that tuitioning Chebeague students, based on a rate of 25 students at $10,000 each, would raise $250,000 per year for district, mitigating much of the tax impact.

But Betts Gorsky, chairwoman of the SAD 51 board, said Chebeague Island has only 18 students in the district and she doesn't know where Damon came up with the figure of $10,000 per student, because a proposed tuition rate was never discussed.

Bruce Smith, the attorney for the district, recently sent a letter to CICA's attorney, Peter Lowe, asking that district representatives be included in the negotiations process.

Council Chairman Bill Stiles and Councilor George Turner were chosen to represent the town in the negotiations and given immediate authority to begin discussions.

Jaime McLeod can be reached

at 781-3661 ext. 113 or
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