Coming up Monday we have a great group post on what the Maine Crime Writers are reading. I don’t want to spoil it. And won’t.
But there’s something that probably won’t be mentioned that I’m reading, that I read every year, and maybe you’re reading, too: your town report.
There are 486 municipal reports published in Maine every year. Every municipality is required to publish one. Chances are, if you live in a community that doesn’t have an annual town meeting, you don’t see yours or care.
But maybe you should take a look — if your town is like mine, a copy is mailed to your home and there are extras around town.
Town reports are a goldmine of information. Not only do they have the town budget — which if you’re lucky enough to have a town meeting you get to vote on, and argue about, line by line — but they also have the kind of tidbits that are the stuff writers love.
My town, Belgrade, has tributes to every resident who died over the past year; a list of how many calls, and what type, the fire department made; the ever-popular delinquent tax list, which runs seven pages and adds up to more than $79,000.
It has how many dog licenses were issued (179). How many building permits, and what type — 11 single family homes, for instance, up from 6 the year before. But only 22 garages and sheds — there were 40 in 2016. Three commercial structures. Hmm. Wonder what they were?
According to the animal control report, there were 14 animal welfare issues, 72 dogs at large, 10 livestock out reports, 18 missing dogs, 21 stray cats, 13 wildlife concerns and 29 barking dogs. The animal control officer reports that dogs at large “continue to be an issue” and reminds residents to “be mindful of your neighbors when your dogs are out.”
I’m also told my town has 27,917 acres of land, 9.638 acres of water, 1,158 acres of bog or swamp. And the report does the math for me — that’s 38,713 total acres.
It not only has reports from the superintendent of schools, town manager, planning board, and other expected people who would make reports, but also the Belgrade Draggin’ Masters Snowmobile Club. Club Vice President Ernie Rice’s report is a full page — twice as long as the planning board’s.
This isn’t one of those “isn’t Maine quaint and cute” pieces. What it is is a reminder that even if Main Street is Cabot Cove cute and the bean hole supper is the town’s biggest social event (it IS in my town), we live in real places that are working, breathing, living machines made up of a lot of pieces.
As a mystery writer, the town report is a delight of little details that I can work into my books.
As a resident, it gives me a look at my town, who is in it and what those tax dollars that we’ll be haggling over at Saturday’s town meeting are paying for.
Every once in a while, you hear someone say that the town meeting form of government is clunky and obsolete and should be done away with. But I gotta say, it’s kind of neat to see where every single cent is going, and listen to what people think about it.
I’m also — don’t laugh — an infrastructure nerd. There can be a lot of talk about road construction and winter pavement treatment and things like that. I eat it up.
You never know what people are going to argue over. A fellow reporter recently said to me she doesn’t go to her own town meeting because she’s had to cover too many over the years. As someone who worked for daily newspapers in northern New England for 33 years, I feel her pain. My first town meeting as a reporter was in Limington in 1983 and I believe it lasted about six hours.
But as a resident, it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s not someone else’s town, it’s mine. I don’t have to figure out how to wring a story out of it, I have a stake in it. It’s not like being a reporter at all. (Though I do take extensive notes — some habits never die.)
According to my town report, there are 2,612 registered voters in Belgrade. My guess is about 100 will show up Saturday to vote on the 50 articles that make up our $9 million-plus town budget.
But that won’t keep many of the other 2,512 from complaining about their tax bill. Too bad, they had their chance to have their say. They can’t say they didn’t know — it’s all there in the town report.
You’re right about the curiosity and factual value of town reports. During my library career, I discovered that the University of Maine was working on digitizing as many of these (and other town documents) as possible, so I and some civic minded volunteers worked on scanning any we could find and sending the scans to Fogler Library. Here’s the link for anyone curious to see what they have saved.
They used to include more of the “Vital Statistics” than they do now. As in where people getting married were from and what hospital a baby was born in…now they only list bare facts.
I covered more town meetings than I can count back in the day, annual and specials, too. The annual town meetings were fun because of the food — the friends of the library or the ambulance squad always loaded up a table in the lobby with good eats — and the specials were either routine (an overlooked budget item) or hair-on-fire crazy (an issue so divisive it needed its own multi-hour town-wide meeting.) All fodder for the writing mill, as you say.
And you are so right about town reports – great reading, especially if you know the players.
Cool post, Mo!