Houlton councilors get first look at $9.1M municipal budget

Posted Dec. 20, 2011, at 5:15 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 21, 2011, at 1:43 p.m.

HOULTON, Maine — Town councilors made few changes to the municipality’s proposed 2012 budget during a review session Monday evening, but they made it clear that there are issues they will be talking about at length when they hold a public hearing on the fiscal forecast next month.

The financial outlook recently was presented to councilors by the board of budget review. The board is charged with looking over the budget and making recommendations that are then passed on to the council.

The $9.1 million budget is down $60,000 over the current year budget.

Councilors agreed with the majority of the changes made by the budget board. They approved an extra $1,000 added to the administration’s budget so the town could continue an extended effort to preserve vital records and other historic documents, but councilors decided not to fund a $1,500 request from Vital Pathways that was approved by the budget panel. The local community health organization came to the council last year to request money, for what they said would be a one-time allocation. They asked for funding again last month.

“From what I understand, it is because they are running out of money,” said Councilor Mike Jenkins.

“I have mixed feelings about this because I feel it is a worthwhile organization,” said Councilor Nancy Ketch. “But it was supposed to be a one-time deal.”

Sue Tortello, another councilor, also said she was against giving them money again.

In other action, Jenkins said he wanted to revisit a decision made six months ago when the town decided to take ownership of the Tourist Information Center in order to prevent the Maine Department of Transportation from closing it. At the time, councilors thought they would spend $6,000 to $8,000 a year to maintain the facility. Recent projections have shown that it likely will take an estimated $62,000 a year.

“In the future, I want us to discuss the information center and then vote on it again,” Jenkins said Monday evening.

He said he believes that it is the state’s job to maintain the center, which is just off Interstate 95. Travelers can use restrooms, a playground and pet walking area, and a tourist center equipped with maps, brochures and other information about Houlton and Aroostook County.

The DOT decided to close the center to save money and to prevent duplication of services. The state felt that closing the rest area wouldn’t affect travelers since there is a convenience store and restaurant a short distance away that is open 24 hours a day.

Fearing that a shuttered tourist center would send a bad message to visitors, councilors authorized Town Manager Doug Hazlett to oversee the transfer of ownership of the information center from the state to the town. It received the deed to the property last week.

As part of the deal, the town will be allowed to keep the building for free as long as it continues to house a tourism center. If that ceases, the town has the option to buy it at fair market value.

The estimated $62,000 operating costs will include snow and grass removal, janitorial services and year-round staffing. Staffers work at the center under a contract with the state Department of Economic and Community Development. While it is open 24 hours a day now, the town plans to cut costs by slashing its business hours. Officials also will be seeking funding from other organizations in Aroostook County such as chambers of commerce and businesses that benefit from the center.

Jenkins said Monday he was concerned about future costs.

“We have to take care of Houlton and not Aroostook County or the state,” he said. “I hope we have more [financial] information by the time we gather to vote on the budget.”

He added that he felt town officials had been “stupid enough to get suckered into” taking over the building.

Councilor John White said he shared Jenkins’ concern about maintaining the center in the future.

Hazlett said he would have more solid financial figures in January.

When a date is set for the public hearing, the council will review the budget in more detail and residents will be able to express their thoughts.

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