HOULTON, Maine — With five candidates of various ages and occupations running for two open seats on the Town Council, there were bound to be differing opinions offered at the annual candidates forum on Wednesday evening.
But while there were conflicts surrounding economic development and finances, there was still a lot of agreement around the best direction to take the community in the future.
The candidates responded to ten questions posed to them by moderators on a variety of subjects, mainly involving economic development, finances and job creation.
Responding to an inquiry about how to make the town more attractive to outsiders, Phil Bernaiche said he felt that having a more open government would be a good first step toward attracting potential businesses and residents. The candidate has served several terms on the council, the SAD 29 school board and various other local committees.
Phil Cloney, who is retired from the military and served 21 years as a local volunteer firefighter, said that he wanted to see Houlton earn the designation as business friendly under Maine’s Certified Business-Friendly Community Program.
Gov. Paul LePage created the program with the goal of encouraging a business-friendly climate in every municipality throughout the state and better positioning Maine for economic prosperity. Thus far, nine communities have earned the certification and five are under consideration. Houlton applied but was turned down.
Incumbent Mike Jenkins, who seeks re-election, said he believes the town is already business friendly and that the municipality does not need “LePage’s blessing” when existing initiatives such as Houlton’s tax increment financing program already offer ways to help existing and future business owners. Daniel Peabody, a local businessman, said that less public bickering among elected officials would make the town more appealing to outsiders, a sentiment that candidate Carl Lord Jr. agreed with. Lord, who served one term on the council and several terms on the board of budget review and other municipal committees, said he felt that the council needed to do a better job of respecting its business community and those with differing opinions.
The candidates had varied opinions on the town’s financial future and ways to spearhead more economic development. Bernaiche was adamant that the town spends too much and borrows too often, while Jenkins said that he felt it is a good idea to borrow money when interest rates are low to finance needed capital projects in the community.
Lord said he wanted to see the town continue to build its tax increment financing program. Tagged as an economic development device, TIF aims to enhance and entice investment in a specific portion of a town. Establishment of TIF zones helps stimulate economic development, guard or create jobs, and encourage investment to bolster business growth. The proceeds from such activity can be used for development projects.
In June, voters opted to spend $1.6 million in TIF funding to extend water and sewer lines on the North Road, which Lord said would continue to help in the establishment of new businesses.
Cloney felt that the town needs to lure more manufacturing jobs to the area to help curb outmigration. At the same time, he talked about taking little steps to attract more businesses to Houlton, such as editing the town’s out-of-date website.
Peabody wanted to see more support for local entrepreneurs to help them start or expand businesses. He said that would allow more people to spend money in town and fuel the local economy.
Sponsored by the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce, the more-than-hourlong forum was held at the Town Office.
Besides Jenkins’ seat, Councilor Nancy Ketch’s is up for grabs on Election Day due to term limits.
Voting will take place on Election Day, Nov. 6, at the Houlton Recreation Center.