Community center to close over funding impasse

Posted June 14, 2010, at 8:38 p.m.

NEWPORT, Maine — The Sebasticook Valley Community Center will close temporarily later this month because of an impasse with selectmen over funding.

Pam Newcomb, who is president of the center’s board of directors, said there isn’t enough funding to sustain normal operations through the summer. The center, which is usually open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days a week for anyone who wants to use it, will close its doors from June 25 to Aug. 22. Certain already scheduled programs, such as weekly bingo matches and low-impact senior aerobics, will continue, though others, such as the center’s summer day care program, will not.

“We can’t afford to pay the overhead,” said Newcomb.

In past years, the town of Newport has covered up to 40 percent of the community center’s budget, but that stopped earlier this year after Newcomb and others on the board of directors discovered money missing from the till. Since then, the Newport Police Department has been conducting a criminal investigation that Chief Leonard MacDaid has said involved more than one suspect. A spokeswoman for Penobscot County District Attorney Chris Almy said Monday that the investigation is still ongoing.

In March, shortly after Newport residents at the annual town meeting approved spending $100,000 on recreation, selectmen announced they would withhold that sum from the community center, which until then ran most of the town’s recreation programs. Selectmen said the funding has been withheld so they could ensure tax-payer dollars were being used properly. Since that time, the town has covered some of the costs by paying vendors directly, but has not released any money directly to the community center.

Newcomb said the town has paid approximately $3,700 in bills on behalf of the center since the impasse began. In past years, the town has given the center as much as $8,000 a month.

In addition to closing the building, the center’s one full-time and three part-time employees will be effectively laid off during the closure.

“We will not be open for the summer unless some money just drops from the sky,” said Newcomb, who said part of the reason for the closure is to save money for programs that begin when school resumes.

Center director Gene Rouse said at least $5,000 a month is needed to keep the doors open and provide the bare minimum of programming.

Town Manager James Ricker said the Board of Selectmen’s intent is to spend its recreation budget on sports programming, including improving the town’s sports infrastructure. The board already has voted to improve town-owned tennis courts and is exploring the possibility of expanding baseball fields, improving the swim-ming area, renovating outdoor basketball courts and possibly creating an outdoor ice-skating rink.

“We are going to support recreation programming in the town of Newport probably forever,” said Ricker, adding that Newport has given the center more than $22,000 since Jan. 1 of this year. “The real stickler at this point is the pending legal issues [at the community center].”

Newcomb said she doesn’t understand that stance.

“We discovered the theft, and we reported it,” she said. “It’s important that people know that.”

In an effort to bolster its operating budget, the center plans to conduct several fundraisers in the coming months, though the main focus will be restoring the funding from the town. To that end, Newcomb said she and others are circulating a petition to have a special town meeting, at which the community center would lobby for the town to set up a special account to fund the community center.

“The people who are losing are the people who use the community center,” she said. “The town has lost sight of the fact that we do all of this for the kids.”

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