SWANS ISLAND — Voters at the town meeting here on Monday approved funds to renovate an apartment for use by the island’s law enforcement officer and his family. Action also was taken to switch selectmen’s pay from an hourly wage to an annual stipend and to begin work on an update to the town’s comprehensive plan.
Residents voted to raise a total of $704,390 for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. About 100 voters attended the meeting, where 39 warrant articles were considered and at least one bag of Life Savers was consumed in over five hours, according to Moderator Gary Rainford.
The budget includes $95,000 for administration, $75,000 for the Fire Department and $54,034 for the ambulance service. The road budget is $174,000, of which $130,000 is to be raised by town taxpayers. The amount of $65,000 is budgeted for snow removal, a decrease of $5,000 from last year. The solid waste budget is $122,000.
The School Administrative District budget is $1,285,410, and the county tax stands at $70,685. Unlike the Cranberry Isles and the Mount Desert Island towns, the school budget here is approved at a separate meeting.
Selectman Myron Sprague was elected for another three-year term. Starting this year, compensation for selectmen, who also serve as assessors and overseers of the poor, will be fixed at $5,000 annually instead of a $20 hourly wage.
Tammy Tripler was unanimously elected director for School Administrative District No. 76 with 25 votes.
After several contenders declined nominations, a total of 31 votes in favor of Jason Matthews made him the new member of the Planning Board.
Three people were nominated for the position of treasurer, including Bonnie Turner and Megan Joyce, but Monica Cease, the town’s current treasurer, received 60 of the 105 votes that were cast in a second round of voting, due to a failed motion.
Compensation for the treasurer was one of the article items that prompted debate. Donna Wiegle, the town’s public health officer, suggested lowering the treasurer’s compensation and made a motion to pay the treasurer $5,000.
“I feel like we’re paying more than $8,000 in total, because we have a new administrative assistant to the selectmen, Karen Griffin, and Karen is doing some of the treasurer’s job now,” she said.
“You may not see me, but I put in about 40 hours a month, and I think $8,000 is reasonable,” said Cease, who recently shifted from weekly visits to the island to a bimonthly schedule.
“That job is the most important job for this town,” said Griffin, who serves as deputy treasurer. “It isn’t how much work you do or how many hours you put in, it is the responsibility that goes with the job, and Monica carries this responsibility for this town.”
Wiegle replied: “I would be perfectly content paying Monica the $8,000 if Monica was doing the treasurer’s job as she has done in the past, without assistance from a second person.” She said about 80 percent of the paychecks she receives from the town are signed by Griffin.
“Putting checks and signing them and putting them in the mail probably takes about 45 minutes,” said Griffin. “That is a very small part of what Monica does, and it saves the town a $27.25 ferry ticket for her to come out to do that one small part of it, which is really administrative in nature.”
Wiegle said if someone who lives on the mainland has a job on Swans Island, they should be paying for their own transportation.
Dexter Lee, who served as selectman for over 43 years before retiring last March, then made the motion to pay the treasurer $8,000 a year, which carried 41-6 in a hand count.
It took several rounds of votes to elect Jennifer Helman, Gary Farley and Zeke Freelove to the Municipal Advisory Council.
Voters approved a transfer of $10,000 from surplus funds for the Swan’s Island Comprehensive Plan. Sonja Philbrook, chairman of the Comprehensive Planning Committee, briefed the audience before the vote and said it’s time to update the town’s plan, since it was last written in 1994.
“It would require some blind faith on your part because we don’t know exactly what that’s going to go for as far as a breakdown of numbers,” Philbrook told voters, but the money will help get the surveys done and cover the costs of working with a consultant, she added.
Most items on the municipal budget carried easily and with little discussion, but article 20, asking voters to hear a report and take action on housing for law enforcement, elicited a lengthy conversation.
Selectman Jason Joyce presented voters with three options, with an additional possibility of factoring in housing for the Island Fellow in the decision.
The first option involved paying a policeman a stipend for housing and utilities, which would raise taxation for police permanently by $14,500 per year and would include indefinite periodic increases.
Originally, selectmen recommended option 3, which would fund a two-bedroom addition in the town office apartment using money from the fish plant account, with no increase in taxation. The fish plant account was set up to support affordable housing and other community needs, Sprague told the Islander on Wednesday.
After hearing testimony prior to the town meeting, selectmen changed their recommendation to option 2, which would fund the two-bedroom addition to the town office building through a 10-year note, resulting in a temporary increase in taxation for the police budget by $11,640 per year with a fixed cost for 10 years. At the end of the 10 years, the town would also own the expanded property.
Lee made a motion to pass option 3 because it “would cost taxpayers nothing,” but his motion was met with opposition from the others who cited lack of maintenance on the fish farm building. Some residents were agitated that the town was voting on this matter again, saying residents had already opposed it at last year’s town meeting.
Wiegle said the town had already provided Morang with a perk package, including ferry trip reimbursements for members of this family.
If Morang wants to put roots in the Swans Island community, she said, “he’s got to put skin in the game.”
Wiegle also brought up a concern that was echoed by other residents, questioning whether expanding the apartment was suitable in the long-term and whether it would meet the needs of a different deputy sheriff who might be single or have a larger family.
“This is like an all-inclusive resort here. Everything is covered, and I don’t think that’s right,” said resident Gary Farley.
Former Selectman Jeffrey Ellison pushed back: “It’s nice to say well, we shouldn’t be paying anybody’s housing, but if you want someone to come out here and do one of the critical jobs that’s needed, that’s part of the costs of it.”
Others were worried about the precedent this would set to other critical jobs around the island, like EMT responders and teachers.
“Are we going to start building all of these houses for all of these people that are important to our community?” asked Special Services Teacher Mimi Rainford.
Back in 2001, she said, the school suggested a similar proposal to provide housing for teachers, which the town rejected.
“We’re six miles off the coast of Maine. It gets hard, it gets a certain kind of person to live on an island,” said Griffin. “We have a contractual agreement to find housing.”
Originally, the contract only required the town to provide housing for law enforcement, but the new contract, signed in January, stipulates that the town needs to provide housing for the deputy’s family as well. This finding was unacceptable to some residents, who felt that selectmen had made a decision on their behalf before the issue was settled at the town meeting.
Morang appealed to the audience about an hour into the discussion, and said he didn’t take anything personally. He added that he sold his house and had been giving up other opportunities to stay on the island.
“My family would like to have stability.”
Nancy Carter, who was on the Board of Selectmen when the apartment above the town office was built, said that “as an older woman, as a retired woman living on a very fixed income, I would choose the cheaper [option] of fixing the town office for a family.”
To her, it makes more sense for the town to invest in an asset than pay a stipend indefinitely.
She also expressed her grievances at how selectmen handled the case. “It sounds to me like this issue has become a vendetta between the local board and our citizens, and I feel bad about that.”
That motion was defeated 63-41 ballot vote.
After a much-anticipated lunch break, Lee made a motion to pass the second option, which carried in a 70-42 vote.