SOUTHWEST HARBOR — When voters here go to the polls Tuesday, they’ll consider two local issues along with state questions concerning public financing of elections and bond issues.
Whether to merge the town’s water and sewer departments into a water and sewer district and whether to purchase property near the Manset Town Dock for future use as a parking lot are on the local ballot.
Both questions generated controversy at a public hearing earlier this month. On Tuesday, at the second and final hearing on the matters, town officials attempted to answer some of the questions raised at the previous hearing.
In opening the hearing, Town Manager Don Lagrange admitted that officials could have been better prepared for questions about the water and sewer district at the first hearing.
“At the last meeting, we didn’t have all the answers,” he said. At times, officials seemed a bit “evasive,” he added.
At that meeting, officials struggled to explain why the district plan would lead to cost savings and better planning for the replacement of aging infrastructure. On Tuesday, they came armed with more details and financial information designed to provide answers.
The Legislature approved the charter for the Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District in June. Voter approval is needed before the district plan goes into effect. Under the charter, a three-member board of trustees would oversee operations of the district; a superintendent would be responsible for day-to-day management.
Town officials argue the oversight by trustees and the superintendent, who would have specialized knowledge of the operations of these public utilities, will result in greater efficiencies. Currently, selectmen, acting as the water and sewer board, make decisions about the water and sewer departments.
Selectman Tom Benson noted that he and the other board members don’t have the expertise to make informed decisions about utilities.
“We’re selectmen, and we’re trying to look out for the town,” he said. “We feel this is the best way to go.”
The town’s sewer department is almost $555,000 in the red. Funds have been borrowed from the town to keep the utility operating. Projections from Lagrange show that, with the district, about $448,000 of that debt can be repaid within six years.
Rates for both utilities also are a concern. Town officials have said Southwest Harbor has the 34th highest water rate and the 16th highest sewer rate of the approximately 155 municipalities surveyed in Maine.
Along with the oversight from trustees and the superintendent, the district would provide other cost savings, town officials said. They cite an expected reduction in overtime expenses, the elimination of administrative and other costs now borne by the town and an increased flexibility in scheduling to meet the needs of customers and the utilities.
If voters approve the district plan, town employees in the water and sewer departments would have “first refusal” for jobs with the district. They no longer would be town employees. One position would be eliminated under the plan, Lagrange said.
Lagrange announced during the hearing that a superintendent had been hired to manage the district. The town has entered into a contract with Steven Kenney, who currently lives in Georgia. He is to be paid $80,000 annually plus benefits. In response to a question after the hearing, Lagrange said the superintendent still will be needed even if the voters reject the district plan.
The news that a position would be eliminated and a superintendent has been hired did not sit well with some. The fact that the town manager would be one of the three trustees also drew fire from critics.
Having the town manager as a trustee is a conflict of interest, they claimed. One of the critics was Jim Snow.
“The town manager can propose costs to the district and then vote to accept those costs,” Snow argued.
Even Matt Tarasevich, an attorney with Bernstein Shur who helped in drafting the charter for the district, expressed concerns about the arrangement.
“My preference is for [Lagrange] not to be a trustee but instead what we call an ex officio,” Tarasevich said.
Lagrange said he believes his participation as a trustee is a “good tie-in” between the current arrangement and the new. If residents feel otherwise, he said, they are welcome to amend the charter for the district, a step that would have to go before the Legislature for approval.
The proposed purchase of the Knote property on the Shore Road had its own critics. Voters are being asked to approve buying the property for $600,000. If they approve, the town would, at a later date, tear down a home on the property and build a paid-parking lot.
Town officials claim the plan would ease congestion near the busy Manset Town Dock and generate revenue for the town. People paying to park in the lot would be one source of this revenue. The additional parking would allow for more moorings in the harbor, a step that also would lead to more revenue, they said.
Resident John Williams made a case for voting in favor of the purchase.
“What this amounts to is the future of the harbor,” Williams said.
Waterfront property will be even more at a premium in the future, and if the town doesn’t act, public access could be gone.
“Twenty years from now, the harbor you see will be much different,” Williams said. “You can control that, or you can let someone else control it.”
Others, including Harold Hall, argued that the town had not done enough to pursue the purchase of the Hook property adjacent to the Manset facility. The town currently leases the lot. Hall suggested that instead of buying the Knote property, the town should take the Hook property by eminent domain.
Polls are open Tuesday at the fire station from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.