Wreaths Across America working on proposal to take ownership of municipal office building

In September 2013, Karen Worcester, executive director of Wreaths Across America, shows off some of the organization’s memorabilia at it headquarters and museum inside the Columbia Falls municipal building.
Tim Cox | BDN
In September 2013, Karen Worcester, executive director of Wreaths Across America, shows off some of the organization’s memorabilia at it headquarters and museum inside the Columbia Falls municipal building. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 14, 2014, at 4:14 p.m.

COLUMBIA FALLS, Maine — Wreaths Across America is still working on a proposal to accept ownership of the town’s municipal office building, the Board of Selectmen learned Monday evening.

Residents voted at a special town meeting in December to convey the structure, an old school, to Wreaths Across America, which currently leases space in the building for offices and a small museum. In return the town would be granted a free, lifetime lease for its offices, selectmen told voters.

The measure also authorized the Board of Selectmen to negotiate the details with the nonprofit organization, which is known for providing Christmas wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery and has close ties to Harrington-based Worcester Wreath Co. That business also leases space in the municipal building.

The town was faced with having to make significant repairs to the building, which also was costing about $8,000 annually to operate.

Town clerk Nancy Bailey told the selectmen Monday night that Karen Worcester, executive director of WAA, was still working on a written proposal to transfer ownership of the building.

The organization is “moving forward” with its proposal and is also getting legal advice, Bailey told the board. Worcester did not return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment.

The selectmen sent a letter to residents in late November in advance of the special town meeting. In return for the building, WAA would give the town a lifetime lease for its offices and only have to pay for incidental expenses such as telephone and Internet service, according to the board.

The same letter noted that the building is in need of repairs estimated at more than $161,000; those repairs would be the responsibility of WAA. The insured value of the building is between $1.4 million and $1.6 million.

In addition, it costs the town about $43,000 annually to operate the building; that is offset by about $34,000 the town receives in rent from WAA and an affiliate business of Worcester Wreath Co. and about $1,000 for renting the gymnasium. WAA would be responsible for the building operating expenses, according to the board’s letter.

WAA would continue to make the gymnasium available for rental as well as allowing a church women’s group to use the kitchen facilities.

Selectman Bernard Ward suggested Monday night that the board should go into executive session to discuss negotiations for the pending transfer, but chairman Alan Grant said a closed meeting was not in order. Ward subsequently noted that WAA has indicated it would want to use old locker rooms that the town has been using to store documents. In that case, said Ward, the board should negotiate to use another area of the building for storage.

“We can surely negotiate that,” said Grant.

Residents voted 51-32 at the special town meeting on Dec. 3 to convey the building to WAA.

The issue continues to divide the community, Ward acknowledged on Tuesday.

“There is a group that is very much opposed to it,” he said. Their chief concern is if WAA eventually sold the building and who would obtain it, according to Ward.

Ward initially thought it would be a good idea to let the organization have the building. However, now he has second thoughts, he indicated Tuesday. The article adopted at the special town meeting, however, leaves the board with little bargaining room in the negotiations, he said.

Without saying he was in favor of, or opposed to, giving the building to WAA, Richard Bedard pointed to flaws in the measure that was passed at the special town meeting and the way the meeting was advertised. Advertisements publicized an informational meeting and, in fine print, a special town meeting after.

“That’s not being very transparent,” said Bedard Tuesday, describing the use of fine print in the legal advertisement as “Politics 101 for those who want the vote to go one way or another.”

There was an item on the warrant for the regular town meeting last spring to consider selling the municipal building. Worcester expressed interest in obtaining the building, and the measure was postponed.

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