FALMOUTH, Maine — Just weeks after Portland regulated single-use, disposable shopping bags, the Town Council’s ordinance committee Monday night recommended waiting and watching what happens in the city before deciding on a town policy.
The council also unanimously approved the fiscal year 2016 municipal and School Department budgets.
Councilor Caleb Hemphill, a member of the ordinance committee, said observing Portland is the best course of action. He said the committee is also recommending the council continue to ask the Recycling and Energy Advisory Committee to undertake “community education” on possible regulation of the bags in Falmouth.
Hemphill also cited Freeport’s recent decision to continue doing researching as part of the ordinance committee’s decision making process.
Hemphill said interest in possible regulations of the bags first appeared in 2014, when citizens began asking the councilors to look into it. The Council tasked the REAC, and the committee eventually came forward with a proposal to phase plastic bags out over two years.
Councilor Russell Anderson said he wants to take a more “aggressive” approach, and doesn’t want the observation period to take too long.
“What exactly do we want to know that we don’t know already,” Anderson said. “I don’t want the Town Council to stall.”
Hemphill said the goal is “just to get short-term reaction from our neighboring community.”
Town Manager Nathan Poore laid out a loose timeline going forward. He said there could be some additional outreach done this spring, followed by a public hearing sometime this summer, “maybe the first (council) meeting in July.” Then there could be a formal introduction sometime in August, a public hearing in September, with an order scheduled for October.
By having the order in October, Poore said, the council could have the possible ordinance take effect on Jan. 1, 2016.
There is still a lot of work to be done, councilors agreed, specifically the scope of the ordinance. Portland’s regulation, which took effect April 15, places a 5-cent fee on single-use paper and plastic shopping bags. It also bans foam cups and containers, but Falmouth is only looking at single-use bags.
Portland’s retailers keep the money, and the fees will not be assessed on smaller bags, such as for produce. The fee is required at grocery and convenience stores, pharmacies, and farmers markets.
Councilor David Goldberg said it is a “philosophical question” for the council regarding which businesses would be affected and which wouldn’t, and that should be a conversation for another day.
Property owners can expect a tax increase of 63 cents per $1,000 of assessed value in the 2016 budget, with an overall tax increase of 4.5 percent.
Total expenditures are nearly $46.2 million. The school portion, which the School Board approved April 6, accounts for nearly $33.3 million.
The general operating budget for the municipal side of the budget is just over $11.5 million, which represents an increase of nearly $110,000, or nearly 1 percent.
Anderson, who chairs the council finance committee, said the municipal budget was “a terrific process and great outcome,” as it ultimately reduced the mil rate by 4 cents.
At a joint Town Council and School Board workshop on April 9, Anderson credited this reduction in part to the creation of the new OceanView and natural gas tax increment financing district.
The School Department’s impact is a 64-cent increase, and the Cumberland County share is a 3-cent increase.
The tax rate on the municipal side went down by 1.3 percent. However, on the school side it will be going up nearly 5 percent. Last year’s school budget was $31.7 million, which included a 4.76 percent increase.
“The school budget is another story,” Anderson said, citing the many challenges the School Board faced, primarily diminished state aid.
“Given the environment they have, the School Board did everything they could,” Anderson said. He then echoed what he said at the April 9 meeting, that the town will soon have to start looking at alternatives to simply raising property taxes, as reduced state aid will likely be the norm going forward.
“We need to open our minds to say we’ll spend less, not just up the taxes,” Anderson said.
The referendum on the school department’s budget will be on June 9.