Budgets pass, econ post debated

MOUNT DESERT — An $8.6 million municipal budget and $3.6 million budget for Mount Desert Elementary School were easily approved at the continuation of the annual town meeting here Tuesday night.

The meeting was suspended May 5 prior to voting on the budgets because the town’s annual financial audit had not been completed, as required by the town charter.

Nearly all of the budget items on the warrant were approved unanimously by the approximately 80 residents who returned for the completion of the town meeting.

The school budget is 4.6 percent higher than the budget for the current year; the municipal budget is up 3.7 percent. Those increases, along with higher assessments for MDI High School and Hancock County taxes, will raise the property tax rate from $6.78 to $7.13 per $1,000 of valuation.

Economic development

One of the smaller spending categories in the municipal budget – $118,000 for economic development – prompted the only debate among town meeting voters. Several expressed skepticism that the town is getting its money’s worth.

The budget for economic development includes up to $67,600 for consultant Jackie Hewitt, who is paid by the hour. The Summer Residents Association has pledged to pay $30,000 of that amount.

“My feeling is that’s a lot of money to give to someone to do what essentially all of you are doing,” Somesville resident Tom Walker said of selectmen and other town officials. “I don’t think it’s that difficult when you get together to figure out what can we do to make our town better. I don’t see a lot of payoff from this economic consultant.”

But Northeast Harbor store owner Meg Asher, who serves on the economic development committee, said many people have good ideas, but someone is needed to coordinate and implement economic development activities.

“We need that sort of glue, that person to carry the ball,” she said.

Hall Quarry resident Seth Singleton said he is happy to see the current business development in Northeast Harbor.

“What I would really like to see is community development,” he said. “And I don’t think that is going to be encouraged so much by brochures, networking with state agencies, summer events and such. That’s going to be encouraged by affordable housing. That’s what’s going to give us the year-round residents to prop up businesses that will be here to serve a community year round.”

Singleton said he isn’t sure the current economic development activities are “that closely linked to the actual development of business in Northeast Harbor or anywhere.”

Town officials were asked how they are evaluating the success of economic development efforts.

“I don’t think we’re going to see immediate results this year or probably even next year,” Selectman Martha Dudman said. “Our town has taken years to slowly decline in economic vitality, and it’s going to take years to build it back.”

“This is a very tiny part of our budget. We’re not asking the voters to throw a lot of money into this.”

Somesville resident Tom Fernald asked how his village, Otter Creek, and Seal Harbor will benefit from the economic development efforts.

Selectman Matt Hart said the economic development committee decided to start by concentrating on Northeast Harbor, but the intention is to broaden the focus.

Selectman John Macauley pointed out that the zoning ordinance needs to be changed to allow for more widespread business activity.

“Otter Creek is not zoned at all for commercial, Seal Harbor has a [very small commercial zone] and Somesville has the One-Stop area,” he said. “So there are clearly some things we need to do before we start encouraging business activities in those areas.”

The economic development budget, which includes $22,000 for a town-wide broadband Internet access survey, was approved on a voice vote.

School budget

Mount Desert Elementary Principal Scott McFarland told town meeting voters that about 90 percent of the $176,000 increase in the school budget is “people costs.”

“What I try to do is hold the line in every other area that I possibly can,” he said. “But when we have an increase in enrollment, which is a great thing – that’s good economic development, I think – it’s hard to say we’re going to cut some teachers to save some money.

“I’m always trying to balance being fiscally responsible to the community but also maintaining a high quality of education.”

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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