Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, September 14, 2023
Nursing home vote delayed to 2024
Residents to decide at town meeting
by Jack Beaudoin
Voters will wait until a March 2024 Town Meeting to decide whether to send $100,000 in taxpayer funds to the Island Nursing Home.
At its September 11 meeting, the Stonington Select Board originally set a public hearing on the issue for later this month, to be followed by a paper ballot vote on November 7. But the logistics around the November timeframe might have resulted in taxpayer confusion and unnecessary town expense if the measure was approved, according to Town Manager Kathleen Billings, and so the board reversed itself on September 12 and pushed the vote back to next March.
At issue, Billings said, is the petition filed by the INH—with supporting signatures from town residents earlier this year—that requires the town to hold a vote on the $100,000 allocation. Since the amount was not included in Stonington’s annual budget, approval of the referendum this year would require the town to issue a supplemental tax bill to all property owners.
“The way it was written, using the term “raise and appropriate,” meant that if the vote passed we couldn’t use surplus,” Billings explained. When she discussed the possibility of issuing supplemental bills to every property taxpayer with the town’s assessor, they realized that some bills issued would amount to only a nickel. “That just didn’t make any sense,” she said.
Billings then conferred with the Maine Municipal Association, which advised her that the town still would be fulfilling the petitioners’ intentions by moving the vote to March 2024. That way, should the measure pass, it can be raised and appropriated as part of the regular 2024 budget approval process.
Since the INH closed abruptly in the fall of 2021, a newly reconstituted board of directors has struggled to raise funds required to reopen the facility. Even after changing the business model from skilled care to residential living, INH officials estimated they would need to raise $1.5 million to offset operating losses in the first three years. INH Board treasurer Skip Greenlaw said the last thing the board wanted to face was another closure, so they set a lofty threshold for their fundraising efforts, and a deadline of September 1.
As part of that strategy, the INH board submitted petitions in early 2023 to two of the seven towns on the peninsula and islands—Deer Isle and Stonington—seeking a donation of $100,000 from each. INH also notified the other five towns—Blue Hill, Brooklin, Brooksville, Sedgwick and Isle au Haut—that it would request the same amount. But the petitions were submitted a little after the deadline, and the Deer Isle select board refused to accept it. The Stonington select board, in contrast, agreed to put the request to a vote.
At a public meeting on July 31, Greenlaw acknowledged that the fundraising effort remained well short of its goal. “To date, we have received $227,151,” he said. “We have pledges of $300,000 if we make the decision to reopen. [But] we are still $1 million short of our goal.”
Will it open?
The shortfall alarmed members of the Stonington select board, who aired deep reservations about the vote on the $100,000 allocation.
Select Board chair Richard Larrabee noted that no one from the INH was present at the September 11 meeting. “Will anyone from the INH board attend a public hearing to answer questions?” Larrabee wondered aloud. “If they don’t show up, I don’t think the people are going to be very happy.”
“I’m concerned that they’re not even going to get the doors open,” Evelyn Duncan said. She rattled off a list of concerns ranging from possible PFAS contamination to fundraising shortfalls and disputes over the percentage of future residents who would actually come from Stonington.
Because state rules governing residential care facilities don’t permit discrimination based on town residency, Duncan said, more than half of the residents who might end up at the facility might come from Portland, Bangor or beyond.
“If we’re going to spend taxpayer money on this, how will the population feel about that?” she asked.