HOULTON, Maine — Candidates hoping to be elected to the Town Council next month sat for an almost two-hour debate on Wednesday evening offering their opinions on everything from economic development and border relations to school finance.
Four candidates are seeking the three available three-year seats on the council. The seats are being vacated by Councilors Sue Tortello, Walter Goodrich and Brian Donnelly. Goodrich cannot run because of term limits and Donnelly isn’t seeking another term.
Tortello is hoping to retain her seat. Paul Cleary and Carl Lord Jr., both former councilors, are hoping to be re-elected. Cleary sits on the SAD 29 board but has decided to seek a council seat.
Robert Hannigan also is vying for one of the council positions. Hannigan is the chairman of the Houlton Zoning Board of Appeals and the parks and recreation advisory board.
There is one open one-year term on the council now held by Mike Jenkins. He is seeking to hold on to the seat and is being challenged by Phil Bernaiche, a former councilor and SAD 29 board member.
During the forum, council candidates made opening and closing statements and answered questions.
All of the candidates credited Town Manager Doug Hazlett with moving the town forward and allowing unrestricted access to information related to town government and its workings. Each also said that they would work to bring in more businesses and advance the town economically if elected. Candidates also agreed that the town has a number of assets, including its location relative to Interstate 95, the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce and its border with New Brunswick.
Hannigan was supportive of bringing in more businesses and also expressed a desire to bring in more revenue and encourage more young people to stay in the community. Cleary said that Augusta was a big factor in the economy of towns across the state and that the town had to pay attention to action taking place in the State House.
As far as economic development, Jenkins said town officials had to be realistic about what types of businesses the town could expect to attract to the rural location.
“We aren’t Bangor,” he said. “We are not going to have an Applebee’s on the corner, because we don’t have the population.”
He said that larger facilities such as Houlton Regional Hospital, Smith and Wesson, SAD 29 and state and federal jobs were better served to set up shop in the community.
They lodged differing opinions on some matters. Bernaiche said he believes that the sitting council does not ask enough questions or discuss agenda items enough during the meetings. He also didn’t believe that elected officials should be on social networking sites.
Jenkins countered that the council doesn’t hold lengthy discussions because Hazlett gives them enough information ahead of time in order to prepare for the meeting.
In terms of SAD 29, Lord said he thought the school district should pay attention to its budget so that the town did not have to raise the mill rate in order to pay what it owes the district. Cleary said he felt the district and town officials should work together to keep the tax rate as low as possible.
Tortello also pushed for economic development and a partnership with SAD 29. She told councilors she believes that modeling good behavior while serving on the council is important as their decisions and actions are visible through media reports to potential businesses.
“We want to be known as forward thinking,” she said. “We can’t afford negative publicity.”
When asked if they would eliminate the franchise fee the town receives as a result of its contract with Polaris Cable Services, the candidates said they would have to study the issue more before responding. The fee is the amount of money that individual subscribers pay to the town for receiving cable service.
The town benefits financially from the cable contract, as it receives revenue from the cable franchise fee. Councilors set the fee, which is now 5 percent of the company’s revenues from subscribers. Since 2005, it has brought in more than $30,000 annually to the town’s coffers.
Candidates pointed out that the franchise fee constitutes revenue for the town, which is scarce in troubled economic times.