News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, February 1, 2018
Selectmen OK proposed 2018 budget
Increased cell service and ICC discussed

by Rich Hewitt

Selectmen on Monday, January 29, approved a final version of the 2018 municipal budget that totals $1,652,138.

The proposed budget represents an increase of $51,565 from the 2017 town budget.

“Considering all we’ve done, I think that’s pretty darn good,” Selectman John Robbins said after the 5-0 vote to adopt the budget.

Chairman Chris Betts agreed, adding that the relatively small increase was reasonable considering the selectmen had “cut the budget to the bone last year.”

As in most budgets, increases in some accounts offset decreases in others, but Selectman Evelyn Duncan said most of the budget increase can be attributed to two specific accounts: third party requests and tarring.

Third party requests to the town total almost $20,000 more than last year and that’s without requests from two agencies which in the past have totaled more than $7,000. The town’s library has increased its request this year from $6,000 to $10,000, and the Opiate Free Island Partnership has requested $20,000. Overall, the third party requests account is up $19,467.

The tarring account for 2018 contains a proposed $100,000. That’s an increase of $38,000 from last year. Selectmen did not discuss individual items in the budget in detail on Monday, but they did indicate that the additional funds were needed since they did not budget enough last year.

The budget line for the transfer station rose by just under $20,000, the result, mainly, of higher tipping fees and a sharp increase in the workers comp line. Workers comp increased in several other budget accounts this year and the selectmen and Town Manager Kathleen Billings made some minor changes on Monday to those accounts before the selectmen voted on the budget.

The budget will go before voters at the annual town meeting in March along with a number of non-budget items. Selectmen will discuss which issues to include on the warrant when they meet next Monday. Among the issues under consideration is retail marijuana sales. The town’s moratorium on those sales will expire in March and Billings noted that, without guidelines from the state, the town has no way to develop an ordinance governing marijuana sales. Although there is some support among selectmen for allowing retail pot shops, Billings said banning retail shops and social clubs might be the best way to go until the Legislature establishes state regulations.

Cell phone service

The selectmen approved a lease agreement with U.S. Cellular that will allow the company to place a cell phone tower on the water company’s standpipe. The company will not pay a fee to the utility for the use of space on the standpipe, but Billings said the agreement will provide some level of cell phone reception to the downtown area.

“It will make it so it won’t be a complete dead zone,” she said.

The town has been working for several years in an effort to improve cell phone reception and Billings said work on the tower would begin in the spring. She added that she is also continuing discussions with AT&T, which also has expressed interest in locating a tower on the standpipe.

Island Community Center

In response to a request from the Island Community Center board, the selectmen agreed to include an article on the town meeting warrant asking for a show of support for the ICC and for the former school building where it is based.

The request comes in the wake of a building study which estimated costs to repair the building and bring it up to code could cost more than $600,000.

The proposed article states that “the town of Stonington affirms the importance of the Island Community Center to the health and well-being of the island and votes to save the building complex of the former school building and to extend the lease with the Island Community Center for six months past its current lease which ends in December 2018. Also, that the Community Center Board and Stonington town officials will collaborate to create a long-term plan for building improvements and continued program enhancement.”

The proposed article, which, according to ICC board President Lydia MacDonald, was based on one the selectmen used before the town began renovations to the municipal building and will help the ICC to gauge the support for making a commitment to the building. A similar article will be presented to the selectmen in Deer Isle.

“We’re looking for affirmation from the town that it wants to keep the community center building going,” she said.

While selectmen acknowledged the importance of the ICC to the town and the island, they expressed concern that the proposed article, if approved, would commit them to a very expensive rehabilitation of the building, which might not be in the best long-term interest of the town or the center. Billings noted that the building is not configured well and would be difficult to adapt to future needs, and that a different, better situated building might make more sense for the future. Selectman Donna Brewer stressed that the selectmen need to provide the cost estimates to voters during the discussion of the article.

“I don’t think there’s anybody that doesn’t want to see the community center there, but it needs to be safe and affordable,” she said. “It [cost estimates] is an important thing. The numbers are going to be very important to people.”

MacDonald pointed out that the report on the building along with the estimates was only made public in January and that the ICC board hasn’t really had a chance to review it carefully. The article, if approved, would give the board the support to work with the town to figure out what should be done, what can be done, how long it will take and how much it will cost.

“At this point, it’s not fair to throw numbers out,” she said.

Brewer, however, was adamant that people need to know the potential costs. “It’s important that they have some idea what the numbers are going to be,” she said, adding later that “you’re asking them to vote blindly with the numbers.”

Betts noted that the selectmen already have discussed the building report and the estimates and that they are already public. “We can’t withhold information we already have,” he said.

The question, according to Nat Barrows, the ICC vice president, is whether people think the existing building is worth saving and whether the ICC should go forward in that building.

“We need affirmation or rejection,” he said.

Once they have clear direction, Barrows said, the ICC can work with the town to educate the community about the center and then determine a plan of action and how to fund it.

Despite their concerns, the selectmen voted 5-0 to include the article on the town meeting warrant.