Split Council Recommends School Construction Bond
Broad Band Could Cost Millions, Curb Cut Application For 77 Cottage Will Be Revised
BAR HARBOR—New Town Councilor J. Clark Stivers attended his first council meeting Tuesday night and cast a dissenting vote along with Councilor Joe Minutolo about recommending if the voters pass a school bond for up to $58 million to build a school to replace the ailing Conners Emerson School. The night before the Superintending School Board unanimously voted to recommend that bond.
Other highlights of the meeting included curb cut discussion for the new curb cut at 77 Cottage Street, the site of the new lodging currently under construction by SSC LLC and broadband survey results. Councilor Jill Goldthwait had an excused absence. Stivers was appointed to the council during its last meeting. He replaces Councilor Jeff Dobbs who had resigned for health reasons. Dobbs had a heart attack this winter.
The Bar Harbor Town Council meeting began with one public comment by Annlinn Kruger who asked for a new ethics ordinance with teeth and also asked for an accounting of former town manager Kevin Sutherland’s actions, potential costs to the town, and council response concerning her protests last year where she wrote “Google Leonard Leo” in chalk along town sidewalks. Leo is a summer resident in Northeast Harbor and conservative legal activist.
PRESENTATION OF THE TOWN WARRANT AND SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION BOND RECOMMENDATION
The council unanimously recommended that town staff prepare the warrant for the June town meeting. The final notice and public hearing will be at the council’s May 16 meeting.
The $58 million bond being asked for is a worst-case scenario to rebuild the Conners Emerson School. If the worst-case scenario comes true, it will equate to a projected increase of $109.58 per $100,000 of home value for property owners in Fiscal Year 2025 to 2026. Then, the increase from Fiscal Year 2026 and through the life of the bond, is projected at $216.96 per $100,000 of home value. These numbers assume a 25-year bond at a 4% rate.
Voters will determine whether or not the town takes out a bond to pay up to $58 million to rebuild the structurally ailing schools. This happens in June.
Councilor Gary Friedmann said that the decision was tough for him because he’d been trying to keep tax increases to a bare minimum, but with a proposed 11% increase, he feels that he hasn’t done that. The two-year increase with the school added in is a hard pill to swallow, he said.
He said that he believes in the need for a decent school and that consolidation is the only way to go long-term. “It’s kind of insanity,” he said of the island having so many different schools. He added that he doesn’t believe there will be a consolidated school in the near future. He said the new school would be a sacrifice, but he was really moved by stories from parents, teachers, and staff in the community, who really believe in the project and the need.
On Tuesday, he decided that he would vote to recommend the bond’s adoption, but with deep concerns about pricing residents out of Bar Harbor. He said he doesn’t believe there is any choice at this point because of the state of the building.
Stivers said he had a litany of reason to vote against it, which were already covered by Friedmann. He said he is one of those people on a fixed income, which makes the concern direct to him.
Councilor Joe Minutolo said he’s lost sleep over the issue and has determined he will not support it.
Councilor Valerie Peacock is an education consultant, mostly in rural schools. She said that this allows her to see educators in schools throughout the state, and that what’s happening in schools is changing a lot and that the demands on schools are changing in deep and wide ways, which can make it hard for adults to understand how different structural and educational needs are now.
“There’s no empty building that can take 300 kids right now,” she said. “The school is falling apart.”
The best case scenario for a short-term fix is probably around $5 million, she said and she believes that’s throwing away money.
She also said that there is a reason we have schools in each community and that there’s a loss of community during consolidation. “We’re already struggling with that in our town,” she said. She said the town needs to think about what does it mean to grow up here and can our kids stay here.
“This is real money. It’s going to make my taxes go up,” she said, adding that she’s already calculated the increase but that it’s an investment and a sacrifice.
“This has been in the works for a very long time. We did wait a couple years. And the price went from 40 million to 70 plus million before cuts were made,” Vice Chair Matthew Hochman said. “Waiting would not make it cheaper. They need a space for modern learning.”
The comments he’s received are overwhelmingly in support of the bond, he said and added that it’s the opportunity to give the next several generations a building to be proud of.
Councilor Erin Cough agreed, saying that she’s supporting the bond because of all the reasons both Hochman and school board members have said at earlier meetings.
She added that if the town changes the land use ordinance, there are still some areas of growth. She believes that the generations that will come in are probably going to be younger generations, the 20-30 year olds, some of whom who will be staying. She said potential residents looking at the school as it is would possibly make them not want to invest in or move into the community. She said, “We need families and those families are going to have to have some place for their kids to go.”
“This is a huge check to write,” Cough said.
She said that she is proud of the education that is provided by teachers, and that the town needs to ensure another generation of families will be educated in Bar Harbor in a school that’s safe.
“I want to see a building that matches the excellence of our school,” Hochman said. “They deserve a building that matches that excellence.”
All voted in favor except for Minutolo and Stivers.
Casco Bay Advisors presented a broadband planning report to the council. The report was meant to locate the current high-speed broadband infrastructure and where it is still needed. It was also meant to estimate costs to extend the service to every potential subscriber in Bar Harbor.
According to the report, “Spectrum serves 83.4% of the town with its hybrid fiber/coax infrastructure.” The University of Maine System also has a fiber network that connects the Jackson Laboratory to other research institutions. Consolidated Communications, Inc. (CCI) also already has some fiber infrastructure throughout Bar Harbor, but it isn’t currently designed for residential consumers. The FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund has funded for CCI to bring 1Gbps to homes along the Indian Point Road. The company also plans to deploy fiber-to-home throughout a large portion of Bar Harbor in 2024. According to Casco Bay, those are assets that the town might leverage.
According to Casco Bay Advisors the total project cost exceeds $7 million, but could be decreased if Consolidated constructs the fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network and overlashes fiber to existing cables. This is also true for Spectrum. This would decrease the “make ready” costs by almost $1.5 million. Construction of the network itself is estimated at taking three to six months. The make-ready process would take 9-18 months
Casco Bay Advisors’ report suggested that the town revisit and confirm its goals and vision for providing broadband to more residents; exploring partnerships with service providers; and find funding to pay for a consultant to negotiate any public-private partnerships. Current service providers include Spectrum and Consolidated Communications.
Council Chair Valerie Peacock said a good first step might be to figure out what Bar Harbor’s goals and visions are. Technology Systems Administrator Steve Cornell said he didn’t envision the town making its own private network. The town would apply for grants and work with Consolidated. He said that Mount Desert contracted with Spectrum to build out areas of the town.
The council unanimously decided to move forward with work Cornell has begun. The costs for that are already budgeted.
CURB CUT APPLICATIONS AND YMCA APPLICATION FOR RV ON SITE
The council quickly approved a curb cut requested at 22 Kennebec Street and did not come to a decision on another curb cut requested at 8 Summer Street/77 Cottage Street the site of a 45-room bed and breakfast.
The 29,929-square foot building on Cottage and Summer is currently under construction and gathered final approval in 2023. Stephen Coston, Brian Shaw, and Tom St. Germain are part of the LLC that created the project, which has garnered controversy because of its size and its designation as a bed and breakfast, which means that it did not need approval from the Planning Board.
Nina St. Germain represented the project at the council meeting where there was discussion over whether what was requested was a curb cut or a loading zone and whether it was an appropriate use. She was told to revise the application with the dimension of the 26-foot curb cut.
A request from the YMCA to house a recreational vehicle at its Park Street location for employee housing has been tabled.
Lori Krupke, executive director of Kids Corner, presented about the childcare center. She said that about 31 years ago, the town and concerned citizens saw a dire need for childcare in Bar Harbor. Since then, Kids Corner has been a part of providing that care.
“We prioritize our children and our families—our working families,” Krupke said, adding that the center’s second generation of children is coming in.
Almost 75% of the teachers have college degrees. Collectively, the teachers at Kids Corner have 85 years of care and education experience. Krupke said that the center has slowly been able to increase capacity so that it’s 25% more than it was during the pandemic. She said that the center struggles with the recruitment of staff and that the lack of available housing has meant the loss of potential new teachers. “The housing crisis has been the clincher for us.”
She said of the families served, 96% have at least one working parent in Bar Harbor. The center has served over 1,000 children since opening in 1990. One of its students is now a teacher.
Councilor Gary Friedmann said Krupke’s commitment to Kids Corner really shows.
Stivers asked what effect a proposed pre-K class at Conners Emerson would have on the facility.
“It would shift the ages that we care for. We’ve been trying to make sure that we have a plan in place,” Krupke said.
Hochman spoke to growing up in Bar Harbor and seeing the transition of Kids Corner’s site at the corner of Eden Street and Mt Desert Street and how it brings vibrancy.
“It has become a very stable space in town,” he said. “It is still the great place for kids now that it was 30 years ago.”
CONSENT AGENDA AND TREASURER’S WARRANT
The council unanimously approved the consent agenda which included Acadia Cab’s license renewal, the AT&T lease for roof space on top of the town’s Public Safety Building and refunding the water bonds. It also passed the treasurer’s warrant.
ISLAND WIDE HOUSING SUMMIT
Town Planning Director Michele Gagnon said that about 70 people attended the summit and the intent was to create a common understanding about the housing issues on the island. An official statement will come out soon, she said, and the people attending created working groups that hope to focus on education, communication, changing mindsets and advocacy. Those groups will report back in a year. She also mentioned that the local option tax possibility came up many times.
“The other area to work on is island-wide collaboration,” she said. “People want to know what other places are doing. What has worked. What has not worked.”
She said that she isn’t sure if the island or town can meet the housing needs alone, but that it may need to be more of a regional and Hancock County effort. The Bar Harbor Story previewed the summit, which was not open to the press, and occurred on March 24.
Friedmann said he’d like to know the best way to address the idling of cruise ship tenders, referring to resident Jim O’Connell’s statement at another meeting about the town ordinance against idling and worries over toxic diesel emissions. Friedmann also said he’d like an update on the Higgins Pit solar project.
Councilor Peacock gave an update about the cruise ship litigation. Interim Town Manager and Finance Director Sarah Gilbert said that the code enforcement officer, harbormaster, and police chief have been meeting about rule making around the daily disembarkation changes approved by voters in November. Those changes are what the town is being sued over. Peacock said that the staff is working on the enforcement and practical aspects of the permitting.
Both Hochman and Cough encouraged those who wrote letters to the council about the school construction bond to also share those letters with the Mount Desert Islander.
TOWN MANAGER SEARCH
The advertisement for the position is out and there are some applications. The deadline for applications is April 19.
There are currently 94 responses to the Polco survey, which is open until Friday.
LINKS TO LEARN MORE
To check out the project, click here.
Click on this link to access the survey https://polco.us/scvh5g
Note: I was once the co-president of the Kids’ Corner Board for a short period of time.
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