LINCOLN, Maine — Despite the threat of a petition drive that could derail it, town leaders said Wednesday they plan to go ahead with a preliminary agreement that would put town workers in a new office building next year.
A memorandum of understanding with the new landlord, which the Town Council voted 5-1 to pursue Aug. 25, is due to be signed by councilors during their Monday meeting, officials said.
Meanwhile, developer Sterling Osgood said Wednesday he has halted preliminary construction on the new town office building, which began last week, to see how the meeting goes.
“This whole thing stinks. It stinks terribly and it is not fair to me,” said Osgood, noting he spent $40,000 of his own money to start the project.
The petition drive the town’s current landlord — the local Masonic lodge — has said it will pursue requires 321 signatures, officials said. According to section 801 of the Town Charter, petitions need signatures from 10 percent of the town’s registered voters to force the council to hold a public hearing to consider an order, such as one to place a question on a ballot.
Council Chairman Steve Clay and Councilor Curt Ring accused the Masons of being inefficient landlords and using the petition drive to stall the loss of the Main Street building’s only tenant. The Masonic lodge’s president said the petition drive is proceeding because the fraternal organization believes that the will of town residents is being ignored.
“They are using any tactic they can to keep us right there,” Clay said Wednesday.
“This call for a referendum is nothing more than a deflection. I will honor the wishes of the voters but they elect us to make small or big decisions,” Ring said.
Mark Weatherbee, president of Horeb Lodge No. 93, said the Masons are responsible landlords. He has described as hasty the council’s decision to accept Osgood’s proposal to spend his own money building a town office on Fleming Street in exchange for a 20-year lease charging $6,348 per month.
The Masons, Weatherbee said, offer a better deal at $2,556 per month, or $30,795 annually, a rate that includes utilities. The town has leased space in the 110-year-old building for 70 years. Councilors addressed the lease in recent weeks because it expires in 2015.
“We urged the Town Council to diligently seek the input of the townspeople whom they have been elected to represent. Although this has been an issue in consideration by the town for some time, it is only in the last week or so that public scrutiny of the proposals has been possible,” Weatherbee wrote in a letter to the editor emailed to the Bangor Daily News on Aug. 26.
Clay and Ring agreed that $2,556 is a good deal, but that rent would increase substantially to cover the many costs of fixing the Main Street building. The rent increases annually with heating and cost-of-living increases, they said.
According to documents they provided, town officials have said publicly and in correspondence with the Masons since 1996 that the building is cramped, lacks record storage space, adequate disability access and public restrooms. Town officials have been forced to pay for several improvements with town funds.
“Any major changes will cost a lot of money and I believe the Masons will not absorb that cost, with their history of making no changes to the building,” Ring said.
Weatherbee said that through the years the Masons have offered to work with the town to make several improvements to the building through engineering studies and building committees but that those efforts were never followed up by the town. The Masons re-shingled most of the roof and repaired three of the building’s six large steps over the past year.
The latest request-for-proposal the council received from its landlord offered no cost estimates for improvements, instead suggesting that both parties form a committee that would decide changes. In contrast, Osgood promises the town a better building without that bureaucracy, Clay said.
“With his proposal, we get a brand new, efficient building to lease,” Ring said. “He pays for it and not one dime of the cost of the lease of this building will come from the general fund. Every penny of this lease will be paid with TIF funds.”
Town officials will use money set aside in the Tax Increment Financing deal with the Rollins wind project. That fund has about $400,000. It takes in almost as much annually, so the lease’s impact upon it will be slight, Ring said.
The dispute might take another turn when results from an inspection done last week by a mold remediation company are submitted. The results are due by Friday. The inspection occurred after Ring and Weatherbee disagreed about whether the town office has a mold problem.