Residents leery of district plan

SOUTHWEST HARBOR— Town officials here argue a water and sewer district is needed to address infrastructure problems in the town’s public utilities and keep rates under control. But in a public hearing Tuesday, they struggled to make a case for why a district is needed to achieve those goals.

Whether or not to dissolve the town’s water and sewer departments and merge them into a Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District is one of two local issues facing voters when they go to the polls on Election Day, Nov. 3.

The other ballot question asks voters if they wish to purchase a property across from the Manset Town Dock for $600,000. The town plans to use the property for paid parking.

Both issues were discussed during the public hearing at the Southwest Harbor Fire Station. More than 50 residents were in attendance, and many of them peppered selectmen and Town Manager Don Lagrange with questions about the need for both a water and sewer district and the parking lot plan. And in both cases, it was clear that not everyone was satisfied with the answers.

Town officials have been working toward merging the water and sewer departments into a district for some time. In June, the Legislature gave its approval to a charter for the district. Voter approval is needed for it to go into effect.

A three-member board of trustees would govern the district. Day-to-day operations of the district would be overseen by a superintendent/manager who would be paid between $80,000 and $90,000 annually.

All assets associated with the water and sewer departments, including the water and wastewater treatment plants, would be transferred to the district. This also would need voter approval and is a separate question on the ballot.

In addition, employees of the water and sewer departments, who now work for the town, would become employees of the district.

“We project this would create significant savings,” Selectman Lydia Goetze said.

According to town officials, water and sewer rates in Southwest Harbor are 30 percent higher than in comparable towns. In addition, both systems are badly in need of infrastructure repairs. A district can be run more efficiently which, in turn, will get rates under control and headway can be made in addressing the infrastructure problems, officials claim.

There was no disagreement from the public about the need to tackle issues in the water and sewer departments. However, many did question why a district is needed.

“How will it be more efficient,” asked Kristin Hutchins.

The oversight of the Board of Trustees and the hiring of an experienced manager will lead to efficiencies, Lagrange said.

“They will be able to focus on the problems you have,” he added.

His answer didn’t satisfy Hutchins or some others. They asked for proof.

Mary Costigan, the attorney who represented the town in drafting the charter, responded.

“A district is its own entity. The efficiencies come from taking it out of municipal government,” she explained. “The only proof we have that it works is from looking at other towns.”

Knote property

Voters at the polls on Election Day are being asked to approve the town’s purchase of this property near the Manset Town Dock for $600,000. Future plans call for tearing down the house and building a parking lot on the site. PHOTO BY MARK GOOD

Voters at the polls on Election Day are being asked to approve the town’s purchase of this property near the Manset Town Dock for $600,000. Future plans call for tearing down the house and building a parking lot on the site. PHOTO BY MARK GOOD

In opening the hearing on the proposal to purchase the Knote property near the Manset Town Dock, Selectman Tom Benson cited the need for more parking on the waterfront and its importance to the town’s economy.

“We feel the harbor is a very important item for the town,” Benson said. “There really aren’t many other opportunities for parking around the harbor.”

The town currently leases the Hook property for additional parking near the Manset dock for $8,000 a year. If the owners for some reason decide not to renew the lease, the town would lose a significant number of parking spaces at the busy dock. Town officials have made several attempts to contact the owners to see if they would sell the Hook property but received no response. This makes the purchase of the Knote property even more desirable, town officials maintain.

Several residents, including former Harbormaster Gene Thurston, were skeptical.

“Was every effort made to obtain the Hook property,” he asked.

Because the owners didn’t respond to the town’s inquiries, one has to assume they are not willing to sell, Lagrange said. The tenuous nature of the annual lease puts the town in a difficult position.

“The town is basing the future of the harbor on a year-to-year lease,” Lagrange said.

If voters approve of the $600,000 purchase, the town plans to develop a paid parking lot with 85 spaces, 14 of which are for a vehicle and trailer. Users would pay with a credit or debit card at a computerized gate. The cost of developing the lot is estimated at $350,000. Officials have said this expense could be offset through state and federal grants.

The parking lot not only would generate revenue from paid parking, the additional spaces would allow for increasing the number of moorings in the harbor, which is another source of revenue for the town.

“We want to improve that area without it being a burden to the taxpayer,” selectman George Jellison said.

The plan did have support for several residents, including Mike Mansolilli, who said he often works near the Manset dock and sees the need for more parking.

A second round of public hearings on both issues is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 27, at 6 p.m. at the fire station.

Mark Good

Mark Good

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Mark Good

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