MOUNT DESERT — The Mount Desert Chamber of Commerce’s request for a 136 percent increase in the town’s appropriation, from $27,500 in each of the past three years to $65,000 next year, has been rejected by the Select Board.
The board voted last week to recommend that voters at the May 3 annual town meeting approve appropriations for outside service organizations totaling $324,095, including $27,500 for the Chamber.
The Warrant Committee is expected to make its recommendation to voters on March 15, and some committee members are said to disagree with the Select Board’s opposition to the Chamber’s request.
The Chamber had proposed becoming the “economic development arm of the town” as well as serving its members and the business community at large. Of the $65,000 it requested, $52,000 would have been used “to offset the administrative costs of management of the visitor center [at the Northeast Harbor Marina] and the new executive director/economic development position.”
The job of executive director is currently a half-time position. The Chamber said that, in an expanded role, that person would work closely with the town’s Economic Development Committee.
In addition to the information provided on the form requesting town funding, Chamber officials wrote, “The new organization creates a stronger, more unified engine to drive economic growth for the Town of Mount Desert…By aligning to offer a comprehensive, integrated approach to members, investors and customers, (public/private) collaborations expand services, strengthen reach and business advocacy and better coordinate potential economic development opportunities.”
But a majority of Select Board members balked at the Chamber’s greatly increased request.
“I believe we over-fund and over-support the Chamber of Commerce to begin with, with the $27,500,” board member Geoff Wood said. “We provide them with a practically rent-free building; we support their utilities.
“I absolutely do not support the effort to hire an employee with taxpayer dollars who is not accountable to the taxpayers to a large degree. If the town wanted an employee to help with this through (the Economic Development Committee), that’s one thing. This is not that,” Wood said.
“If the [Chamber] member businesses think this economic development person is necessary, then they can fund it. I don’t know what the actual return to most of the residents of this town is. I don’t really see it.”
Select Board member Martha Dudman said that if the Economic Development Committee would like to contract with someone to help with its work, it could request funding from the town.
“I think that’s the proper way that this would come to us,” she said. “I think it would be helpful if the Economic Development Committee could come forward with some specific plans of how they need help in addressing issues that come up.”
Dudman noted that, for several years, the town contracted with an economic development consultant, but had never created a staff position for that function.
“In the past, we’ve had battles on the floor of town meeting about funding for the economic development effort, and the (voters) so far have made it very clear that they did not want an employee of the town [doing that].”
Board Chair John Macauley said he agreed with Dudman and Wood about the Chamber’s request that the town pay for an economic development position.
“It is not a great idea,” he said.
But Select Board member Matt Hart had a different take on it.
“I know that the only time anything has been accomplished was when we had that paid consultant, so I see value to that position,” he said.
He said he agrees that paying the Chamber to hire someone “is not the ideal way to do it,” and he acknowledged that the amount the Chamber requested represents a large increase in its town appropriation.
“But in the grand scheme of the budget it’s not a huge amount,” he said. “I would hate to stop the efforts that have been made.”
As for the town providing the Chamber with space at the marina for a visitor center, Hart said, “The Chamber didn’t ask for a new visitor center. It was just told it was going to staff it. And there is an expense to that.
“It is probably cheaper for the municipality to pay the Chamber to run it than for us to try to staff a visitor center ourselves.”
The vote of the Select Board to recommend town meeting approval of the total package of outside service group appropriations, minus the Chamber’s requested funding increase, was 3-0. Hart abstained because he is community relations director at Neighborhood House, which is one of the organizations that receives town funding.
Board member Wendy Littlefield was not at the Feb. 24 meeting.