Rockland City Council candidates (from left) Will Clayton, Valli Geiger and Theodore Berry
Rockland City Council candidates (from left) Will Clayton, Valli Geiger and Theodore Berry
Three candidates for the two open seats on the Rockland City Council - Will Clayton, Valli Geiger and Theodore Berry - sat down for a debate on property taxes, city services and economic development at Rockland City Hall on Thursday, October 9.

Clayton, who served as Rockland's mayor from 2012 to 2013, has served on the Rockland Economic Development Advisory Committee, the Rockland Board of Assessment Review and the Rockland Personnel Board. He currently works as the Executive Meetings Manager at the Samoset Resort. Clayton said his greatest strength is attention to details in the budget, and he encouraged residents to become more active in the budget process.

"If you don't agree with a stance that I take or anything that I've said tonight ... I want to know about it," said Clayton. "We need open lines of communication."

Valli Geiger, who chairs Rockland's Comprehensive Planning Commission, has lived in the midcoast for 35 years. She has worked as a nurse at Pen Bay Medical Center, a director of a hospice and as a policy analyst for the Maine Health Care Finance Commission in Augusta. She has a bachelor's degree in nursing and graduate degrees in organizational development and sustainable design. Geiger said her priority would be stimulating economic development and exploring ways of lowering property taxes.

Theodore Berry, a newcomer to the political scene, recently became active in a door-to-door campaign to repeal Rockland's pay-per-bag solid waste ordinance. Berry has a bachelor's degree in justice studies from University of Maine at Augusta and currently works at the Lobsterman's Restaurant in Rockland. He said he will work for transparency in government and to protect the library from budget cuts.

"I'm running for city council because I can contribute my knowledge to city government for the best interests of the people," said Berry. "I want to make sure that I instill confidence in the public."

Property Taxes and Budgets

With Rockland's property taxes at $20.16 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, several residents had questions about ways to relieve the tax burden. Geiger, said she didn't have a definitive answer to the problem, but noted that Rockland's designation as a service center has put more financial pressure on local residents. She said her priorities would be to encourage more development on Tillson Avenue to expand the tax base as well as to explore why young families are not moving into Rockland.

"I worry that at the moment, we're seeing young millennials move to Rockland. We are seeing older affluent people move to Rockland," said Geiger. "We're not seeing a lot of families, and ... I know of four families who moved because they didn't want their kids to go to the high school in Rockland."

Geiger also said that the proposed Lyman-Morse hotel to be constructed on Pleasant and Main streets made her concerned that development should be balanced to ensure residential neighborhoods are protected.

In answering a question about which departments would they cut back by 25 percent, Clayton and Geiger both dismissed the idea. Clayton said that it was a "novel idea," but that cutting more municipal jobs and assistance to the poor will make poverty worse in Rockland. He said he believes there are departments that could be run better and some that could be bringing in revenue, but that the council will also need better guidance from the public during the budget process.

Berry said he would cut expenditures to "special interest groups," but did not identify what specific ones. He said the city is underutilizing volunteers.

Poverty and Homelessness

The candidates also discussed ways of alleviating poverty in the city. Currently, Rockland's median household income is $34,388 per year, which is more than $12,000 below the state's median household income as a whole. Food insecurity, meaning a lack of access to enough food for adequate nutrition, has increased by 50 percent in Maine during the past decade, impacting one in five children. The Knox County Homeless Coalition estimates that there are 400 homeless people in Knox County.
Berry said he knew people in his classes who were homeless and that he had been homeless himself for a time. He said that often homeless people will end up in the hospital or jail.

"I understand what it's like to be outside in the cold," said Berry. "And it's scary in the winter because if you're living in your car, you don't know if you're going to freeze to death or not."

He said the city should be doing more for the homeless and suggested turning foreclosed homes into shelters for the them. Geiger said she would be open to such an idea, but Clayton disagreed, stating that it would encourage even more indigent people to come to Rockland. He said that if the city opened a shelter, it would have to allocate additional funding for staffing, which wouldn't be eligible for state and federal grants. Clayton said that poverty and homelessness are a "huge problem" and that part of the problem is that individuals and the council have not been properly alerted to the many services that already exist to help the poor.

City Manager Search

The candidates also discussed the hot topic of finding a new city manager. Rockland went through two city managers between 2009 and 2013. City finance director Tom Luttrell has served as the acting city manager since former manager James Smith resigned last December. In August, the city council voted 3-1 to appropriate $17,000 to hire HR consultant Dacri Associates to recruit the next city manager.

Geiger and Berry questioned whether it was necessary to spend the money for the human resources consultant. Geiger said that by hiring a professional recruiting organization, the council loses the opportunity to go through resumes of qualified people who already live in the community. Clayton agreed with the council's decision to hire a professional recruiting firm because, he said, the firm has more experience in vetting candidates and learning about each candidate's background.

Both Clayton and Geiger agreed that the new city manager should be required to live within the city. However Clayton said that some special exceptions could be made depending on the qualifications of the applicant. Berry declined to answer the question.

Community Policing

On a question from one resident expressing the need for better relations between the police and the community, Geiger agreed. She said police have a hard job, but many see the police as adversaries. She said police should make an effort to be more known in the community. Berry said that there should be more educational programs and forums for police to be in the community and meet people.

Equity in Transfer Station Funding

In recent months, the city council has hotly debated funding for the city's transfer station, leading to a successful effort by citizens to get a measure on the ballot repealing the newly enacted pay-per-bag ordinance. Pay-per-bag supporters have argued that requiring residents to pay a fee based on the amount of trash they generate is more fair and will encourage more people to recycle, which would help the city lower the costs of trucking and disposing of waste.

Opponents say the measure forces individuals using the bags to subsidize commercial haulers using the dump who aren't required to recycle.

Berry said he would like to examine the city's contracts with commercial haulers to ensure each dump user is paying their fair share. Both Geiger and Berry expressed support for repealing the pay-per-bag ordinance.

"I like the pay-per-bag idea because it helps us get to recycling, but I don't think we get there by dragging and screaming," said Geiger.

Clayton said there was a lot of confusion and misinformation about the transfer station's budget and that some residents overestimated the amount of revenue that is derived from recycling. However, he said residents should continue to have a choice of whether to use the pay-per-bag program or to purchase an annual sticker for $135 that allows people to throw away as much as they want.

"What's nice about stickers is that you know ahead of time a good chunk of money that is captured revenue," said Clayton. "That's going to be very hard to do if you simply go to pay-per-bag."