News Feature

Isle au Haut
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, May 11, 2023
Can municipal positions be made more appealing?
Much discussed at Isle au Haut town meeting

by Maggie White

More than a third of Isle au Haut’s year-round residents showed up to participate in the town’s annual meeting on May 2. Those following local town government events might have noted that the meeting was initially slated for May 1, but stormy weather resulted in the mailboat canceling the daily trip from Stonington. And, as the Union 76 school superintendent, town clerk, and a few other key attendees were off-island, the selectboard called a special meeting to officially postpone the event by a day.

Tuesday morning was fair weather and, by 9 a.m., 32 registered voters (the 2020 census lists Isle au Haut’s population as 92) had gathered in the town hall—a building that also serves as the gymnasium, library, dance hall, local theater and general communal gathering space—to discuss the 76 warrant articles.

After Rita MacWilliam was sworn in as moderator—and her compensation for the role was determined to be $20 plus a round-trip boat ticket on the aforementioned mailboat—the first 24 articles involved nominating and voting in townspeople for open municipal positions. Unlike other area towns, where voting for government positions happens by private ballot in advance of the town meeting, Isle au Haut votes during the meeting by write-in ballot.

Wanted: select board members

First selectperson Peggi Stevens, who has served in the role for eight years, was again nominated for the position. This prompted Stevens to make the announcement that she is hoping to retire in a year and since the current second selectperson does not want to take over, she is looking to train someone new. Abigail Hiltz, the then third selectperson (and also the tax assessor chair) stood up to say that she is also not interested in being first selectperson, that she needs people to stop assuming that she is going to do it simply because she is on the board.

A lively discussion then transpired on how to make the position attractive to new candidates, to younger people in particular, and how the work entailed might be divvied up in a way that would make the job less daunting. This public brainstorming session included the possibility of hiring a town manager and/or upping the salary to a livable wage to make the job more appealing to potential candidates. Stevens has been doing the job for the same annual wage of $12,000 since she started).

One voter brought up the point that there are island jobs that pay more and that require less and so it is no wonder that interest is low. And Stevens emphasized that the job is no small feat: “We have as much work as a big town. Even though we are little, there’s still the same amount of paperwork…it’s a very multi-task job.”

Estimating that she works at least three full days a week, Stevens said that her select board tasks run the gamut from the administrative to the janitorial. She admitted that she does not know if she is extremely inefficient or extremely efficient because the nature of the job is that something is always coming up.

Ultimately, Stevens was voted in for another term as first selectperson. It was agreed that the issue would be discussed further at a future date and that, in the meantime and as a show of faith that the town is willing to invest in this important role, her salary would bump up to $20,000 per year. That more than 60 percent raise set the precedent for the other two selectboard members to receive equal percentage bumps in pay. Thus Hiltz (who moved from third selectperson to second) and Kyle Devereaux (who will be new to the board as of May 2) will receive $6,600 per year, up from their former compensation of $4,000.

As for how the salary hikes will affect taxpayers, Stevens said that precise amounts have yet to be determined, but that all monies will be calculated into future tax bills.

Few new names for open positions

In terms of other positions, Kendra Chubbuck was again voted in as town clerk, Ellen Fedosh was again voted in as treasurer, and Lisa Turner was again voted in as collector of taxes and excise taxes. Chubbuck’s salary is to stay at $4,000 per year while Fedosh and Turner each received a $1,000 bump (up to $9,000 per year and $8,000 per year respectively).

Hiltz will remain chair of tax assessors, with Bryan Carroll (who was also voted in as fire chief with the condition that a deputy chief will be appointed soon) and Aiden Olney rounding out that committee. Tucker Runge will take over as road commissioner from Bill Stevens. The latter expressed his wish to retire, saying he’s “getting too old” for the job and could not recall if he’d been in the position for closer to 30 or closer to 40 years—it had been that long. Runge was also voted in to serve another term on the Planning Board, alongside Daniel MacDonald whose term was also up.

It was voted that the school board would go from four members to five after Stevens explained the rationale behind having an uneven number. “Otherwise, the superintendent breaks the tie, but he really doesn’t have a stake in it the way the town does,” she said. The school board is now Rita MacWilliam (chair), Patricia Barter, Sharen Wilson, Mike Fedosh and Kathy Fiveash. Devereaux, in his capacity as selectboard member, will be on the Colwell Ramp Waterfront Access Board alongside Charles Sisk.

School talk

At some point during the municipal elections, the room voted to skip ahead to the school articles as Union 76 Superintendent Dan Ross needed to take the 12:15 p.m. boat back to Stonington to make his CSD 13 monthly school meeting. All articles pertaining to the school passed, though there was some discussion. The overall school expenditures are down for the 2023-24 school year by $21,551 as compared to the 2022-23 school year.

About half of that decrease is attributed to transportation costs because there are no students traveling to the mainland to attend school at this time. In fact, there are only two elementary school-aged children who currently attend Isle au Haut Rural School, which is run by one teacher and one assistant in collaboration with the board and Ross.

Because the state bases annual operating costs on a 16:1 student to teacher ratio (meaning the costs are the same whether there is one student or 16), Article 34 raised some questions. This article was for the “Town’s contribution to the total cost of funding public education from pre-kindergarten to grade 12 as described in the Essential Programs and Services Funding Act, Statutes, Title 20A, §15690, unexpended balances tuition receipts, local appropriations, state subsidy, school lunch revenues and other receipts for the support of schools.” The school board recommended the full amount of $220,213.

One voter posed the question as to the sagacity in it costing more than $110,000 annually per student with the current enrollment, which elicited another voter to ask if there was merit to the idea of recruiting students to be transported on island to attend the school.

No conclusions were drawn; the discussion remained open, though the article passed. It was also announced that a pre-kindergarten program is in the works. To make that happen, “We had to harangue the state a little bit,” said Ross.

Remaining article discussion

In other news, there was discussion about collaborating with other islands to improve the current recycling program, the broadband committee that had worked for Isle au Haut to have high speed internet access received a round of applause, and rates on the mail boat will be going up as of June 1 by $2 per ticket for non-residents (student rates will not increase).

The article that passed with the most “no” votes was Article 53, which requested $20,000 for the Island Store Association annual operations. On behalf of the co-op store, Judi Burke reminded the room of the many ways the store serves the community, including providing a year-round gathering place, delivering gas and kerosene year-round, and offering prices on essentials that are comparable to those found off-island. “We are part of the community. We are just as important as the Town Hall. Just as important as the school,” said Burke. The article passed 18-6.

Article 75 set October 1 as the date for all local taxes to be paid. The interest rate, which is set by the state, will double from 4 percent to 8 percent for all taxes unpaid after October 1.

After all articles passed, Chubbuck read the minutes. There were no objections and new officers were sworn in immediately after the meeting adjourned.

Rita MacDonald sworn in

Moderator Rita MacDonald is sworn in by town clerk Kendra Chubbuck at Isle au Haut’s annual town meeting on May 2.

Photo by Maggie White

At the May 2 annual town meeting, 32 voters participated to pass all 76 warrant articles.

Photo by Maggie White