HOULTON, Maine — Although he admitted it was an “expensive uphill learning curve,” Town Manager Doug Hazlett won the support of town councilors who agreed to pass the 2012 municipal budget with funding to maintain the now town-owned Tourist Information Center intact.
During a meeting on Thursday, the council voted in favor of approving the $9.1 million budget, which is down $60,000 from this year’s budget. Councilors John White and Mike Jenkins voted against the center funding, and White was the only one of six councilors to vote against the overall town budget.
A major point of contention for the council was the $62,567 line item included in the budget to run the tourist center for a year. Last July, 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, located just off Interstate 95. Travelers can use restrooms, a playground and pet walking area, and browse through 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 said 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 Hazlett to oversee the transfer of ownership of the information center from the state to the town. It received the deed to the property in December, around the same time that projections showed that it would take around $62,000 a year to run. The estimated 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.
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.
During the recent meeting, White and Councilor Mike Jenkins were against allocating that much money to run the facility
“Its too much,” said White. “The state can’t afford it, so how can we as a town afford it?“
Jenkins thought that it was going to cost much more than $62,567 to keep it open. He felt it would cost more than $100,000. Both said that they believed it was a mistake for the town to have agreed to take it over.
Councilors discussed several scenarios, including not keeping the facility open 24 hours a day, closing the bathrooms in the evenings or finding ways to lower mowing and snow removal costs. Other than White and Jenkins, councilors were not in favor of boarding the place up.
“We had 24,000 people sign the guest book in there last year, and that doesn’t even include the people who didn’t sign it,” said Councilor Sue Tortello. “We don’t have to run it the way the state did. We can figure out a way to run it cheaper.”
Councilor John Fitzpatrick said that other rest areas closed by the state along Interstate 95 look like “dumps,” and he agreed with Hazlett that the Houlton center would become an eyesore if the town did not take it over. Councilor Nancy Ketch said that the bathrooms had to be open while the tourism staff was at the center because they use the facilities. She also said that the facility was an asset to the town, as the tourism staff pointed visitors to local stores, restaurants and hotels.
White said that he believed that supporting the $62,567 for the center would ultimately result in raised taxes for residents.
“We have it now, it’s deeded to us,” said Hazlett. “Lets find the least expensive way to run this. If we don’t run it, we essentially close it. The objective is to avoid closing it, both for the eyesore factor and to keep the tourism staff there.”
Councilors voted 4-2 to keep the $62,567 in the budget.
Councilors refused a last minute plea from an official from Vital Pathways, a local community health organization, to restore the group’s request for $1,500. The request was approved by the board of budget review but taken out by councilors in December.
Vital Pathways representatives came to the council in 2010 to request money for what they said would be a one-time allocation. They asked for funding again in 2011 for the coming year, but councilors refused to grant it.