BAR HARBOR—The Bar Harbor Town Council adopted the 2024 Fiscal Year budget at its meeting Tuesday night and sent several other items to the town warrant. The voters will decide on the budget, the school bond, and whether to sell a small piece of land to the Black Friar Inn during elections and town meeting in July.
The council unanimously voted to adopt the budget as presented, which means a budget that’s 11.1% more than this current fiscal year. The amount that the town needs to raise via property taxes is $22,119,229.
The town budget runs from July through June. Town voters can adopt or amend the budget at the town meeting in June.
At the beginning of the budget discussion, Councilor Gary Friedmann asked to make an amendment to the budget based on an email from Chamber of Commerce Board President Bo Jennings. The chamber had asked for wayfinding support at $60k. It is currently in the budget at $42,600. The money is used to direct cruise ship passengers throughout town. The money to pay for this does not come from the general tax fund but is paid for through cruise ship fees.
Councilor Jill Goldthwait said, “We worked really hard to cut every penny out of this budget as we could.”
Regardless of the source, she said that she was not supportive of a motion to amend the budget.
No councilor supported Friedmann’s motion. All motions must have seconds. Then there is a discussion and then a vote for a motion to pass or fail.
Former councilor David Bowden spoke during public comments asking how many new hires were within the budget. There are two, both are in the town’s planning department and for full years.
“You want to get a manager in place before you hire new people,” he said, and added that the manager should have a few months of getting their “feet wet” before the hires are made. He suggested funding for a half year instead. This, he said, has been done in the past. He thinks there should be a hiring freeze to keep increases in check.
The prospect of hiring for half years or reconfiguring positions came up at an earlier council meeting in relation to the currently vacant positions of sustainability coordinator and communications coordinator.
Bowden also expressed worry about the tax stabilization project, which was enacted by the state and allows those who qualify to freeze their property taxes. Though passed by the state, the money for the program is not yet approved and is part of Governor Janet Mills’ budget. Bowden said the town may want to put money into the capital improvement program in case the state doesn’t fund it.
Bowden also expressed concern about the overall budget increase.
Council Vice Chair Matthew Hochman agreed that it was a big increase, but said that much of that increase comes from cost of living increases that are mandated in employee contracts. Other aspects of the increase, he said, come from material costs for infrastructure.
Friedmann said, “I still think that 11% is tough.” He said that the council has always strived to strike a balance between the best services and what the town needs and being fiscally responsible and that he reluctantly voted in favor of the budget’s adoption. The $43 million bond last year for public works improvements being paid makes it tighter on taxpayers. “Something’s going to give.”
“It’s a massive jump in our taxes,” Councilor Joe Minutolo said, adding that it was a tough cycle in the budget.
Council Chair Valerie Peacock said the budget is not just about the money but what it takes to run the town and what are the costs for the town we have. Though not excited about the tax increase, she is proud of the work that they did for the budget.
After an extensive discussion the council unanimously voted to place the question of the school bond to the voters. Voters will be able to support the $58 million general obligation bond (25 years, 4% interest) or not via ballot during the election in June at the town municipal building during regular election hours. The bond question is not discussed at town meeting. Its fate is decided via ballot at the same time as voters choose town officials.
Though the motion was just to put the item on the town ballot, many councilors discussed their feelings about the proposal to rebuild the structurally ailing Conners Emerson school.
If passed, any money spent for the project will first appear in FY2025 and not in FY2024’s tax bills. The need for the school’s repair or rebuild has been in the news for years.
Despite the issues structurally, Principal Heather Webster said, “We are doing a great job. We are educating your children. We are doing the best job we can do in the environment.”
But, she said, what would it be like if students and teachers didn’t have to worry about soggy books, if they didn’t have to evacuate classrooms because of leaks, and if they didn’t have to have tarps on the ready.
Every classroom has buckets, she said. Every room in the Conners building has tarps waiting.
The consensus was that even if the bond fails, the school has to be taken care of. The school needs roof repairs, space for the mandatory pre-k classes which are not yet in place. The portable classrooms for those classes have to placed on a tight campus. That could be on the recess playground or possibly on the fields, Webster said.
“I don’t think Peter Alley sleeps at night anymore,” Webster said, referencing the head of maintenance staff. “We are proud of our students.” She said they are proud of the staff and teachers and how the students are ready for high school, but they are preparing them in an environment that is less than adequate.
School Superintendent Michael Zboray said that since the earliest conversations about the school’s potential rebuild, the school committee and administrators have been talking about lessening the burden on taxpayers. The current buildings also are not meeting any of the sustainability goals that the council has endorsed.
School Board Chair Lilea Simis has been checking for outside support. Many who she has talked to have told her they are waiting to see if the voters are in favor of the project. “The best investment we can make is in the next generation,” she said. “I’m really confident that we could take the edge off at least.”
School bonds are typically 25 years according to interim Town Manager and Finance Director Sarah Gilbert. Having a 25-year bond instead of a 30-year bond created an overall savings of $5 million, Zboray said.
“We will never have a building that is green,” School Board Vice Chair Marie Yarborough said unless they build.
Friedmann asked what the annual maintenance on Conners Emerson would be if it failed.
Webster said that costs were estimated at $6 million several years ago. It would probably be $12 million now, she said. She began a laundry list of repairs that included the replacement of a second boiler ($153,000), roof repairs ($580,000), portables to house pre-k classes ($100,000, plus plumbing and sprinklers times two), playground upgrades, the insulation of the Conners Building, reconfiguring bathrooms ($150,000 for just minor changes). The parking lot skirt is coming off in big chunks.
“The library is a big worry at the moment,” she said. The floor is coming away from the exterior support wall and they have a temporary fix for the problem. Water infiltration on the Emerson building’s bottom floor is an ongoing issue.
Hochmann said, “It’s not getting any younger.” He worried that even with the patchwork repairs, the town would be back in the same situation in a few years, but with an even heftier price tag for a rebuild. “Any money we put into this building is just throwing that money away.”
Hochman added, “It has not improved with age.”
Councilor Erin Cough reminded everyone that the town doesn’t have to spend all the money it receives in the bond. “When the town approves it, that money is waiting there for us. As we need it, we can pull from it.” There will not be a 15% increase next year, she said, and there won’t be $3.8 million in debt service in next year’s budget. “I don’t think anyone should be having heart palpitations.”
Construction would start in 2024, Zboray said. The already approved $3 million would pay the initial debt service.
Cough stressed that there are things in the school that just can’t be fixed. In the Conners building’s lower level there are four slippery steps and a hallway that is always slippery due to almost constant condensation. “Our kids have a fear and anxiety of going up and down wet steps,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to worry about the condition of your school when you’re going to school.”
Your roof leaking on you isn’t something that you should worry about in class. Windows can’t be put through walls that are support walls and you can’t fix a wall that is supporting a building and a floor that is moving, Cough said. School Board Vice Chair Marie Yarborough said her kids didn’t take their jackets off in school because it was rarely warm enough to.
Minutolo said he’s had a tremendous amount of people pulling him aside worried about the bond. He said that it’s the result of so much deferred maintenance. He’d love to see a peer review or value engineering on the project. They could look at the total project and look for ways of saving money while keeping the same quality of building. “It’s a really sad situation in how it’s gotten to be.”
Yarborough said that they do have past reports about the school’s ailing systems. Zboray said that Harriman also explained the cost of renovation vs rebuild at an earlier council meeting.
Hochman said that other schools in the state are running at the same construction costs. Cape Elizabeth, North Yarmouth. Staff members in closets, teaching in closets, is no way to run a school, he said.
While Minutolo said he spent five hours Tuesday talking to people in his shop and has talked to 40-50 people about it, Simis said that she runs a store as well and hasn’t had anyone come in and be unsupportive.
“It’s very hard to feel a tension that I feel between the school board and the council,” she said.
Minutolo said he didn’t think there was a tension. He said that because of all the tax increases and adjustments that people have been hammered. “It’s hard for common people to be here now.”
BLACK FRIAR INN
This June, voters will have the ability to approve or reject a sale of a small piece of land that abuts the Black Friar Inn during the election after the council unanimously tweaked a proposal in a series of motions. The 969-square-foot lot would be sold to Deborah Vickers and Steven Woitasek, owners of the Black Friar Inn & Pub.
The original proposal for the sale price that passed at the last council meeting in a split vote was for the cost of past paid rent and an additional thousand dollars. Goldthwait explained that in previous meetings and for several years the owners have been trying to purchase the strip which, she said, is virtually useless because of various zoning requirements. The town purchased the land for $1. The owners tried to get the purchase in the 2021 ballot in and June 2022 ballot, but the town didn’t get it there. Because there was a divided vote on the council, the question became would there be a divided vote at the town meeting, Goldthwait said. At the owner’s request, the council went back to the original appraisal price minus rent paid and minus appraisal costs.
The order places the sale of the town-owned property on the June 7 town meeting warrant. It would be for $51,695.
“We feel like it’s only fair to pay the town the appraised value price for the property,” Woitasek said.
Hochman’s adult daughter works at the Black Friar, which he said that he realized after the last meeting and discussion. Goldthwait said that his disclosure is sufficient. The council unanimously voted that he did not have a conflict of interest.
LINKS TO LEARN MORE
Bar Harbor Story is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
"Chamber of Commerce Board President Bo Jennings. The chamber had asked for wayfinding support at $60k. It is currently in the budget at $42,600. The money is used to direct cruise ship passengers throughout town."
Jennings may also be running for a Town Council seat. This is a big red flag.
Seriously. And $60k to direct cruise ship passengers around town? Boondoggle.