CAMDEN, Maine — Without voters’ permission, town officials funneled more than $700,000 from Camden’s general fund to the Ragged Mountain Recreation Redevelopment Project at the Camden Snow Bowl, the auditor hired by the town’s Select Board found.
Ripping into the board on Tuesdsay night for its sloppy handling of the $6.5 million project, auditor Ron Smith of Buxton-based RHR Smith and Co. said, “This shouldn’t have been that hard. You had some good fiscal practices, and you chose to not use them.”
Board Chairman John French said the financial bungling is “probably one of the worst things that’s happened in my tenure on the board. It got away from us… We’re trying to make it right.”
Smith compared the money trails that his audit uncovered to “tentacles” that improperly extended into virtually all municipal departments. Smith discovered that the town “put a drain on (its own) cash flow” by tapping $743,000 too much from the municipal general fund to pay for the project.
In a November. 2013 referendum, residents voted to borrow up to $2 million and to match $4.5 million in privately raised money through the Ragged Mountain Recreation Area Foundation for the project, which was supposed to include new ski trails, new ski lifts, a beginner ski area, more parking and a new two-story lodge.
The lodge has yet to be built, but the project is already $47,529 over budget, Smith said.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Protection fined the town $44,000 in February for destroying a section of forest on Ragged Mountain during excavations related to the redevelopment project and for failing to prevent erosion that polluted nearby bodies of water.
The town is negotiating a consent agreement with the DEP. The town might end up paying for $44,000-worth of other environmental mitigation efforts in the Ragged Mountain area, Town Attorney William Kelly said Tuesday night.
Board member James Heard, who called the project “terribly mismanaged,” said that if his term weren’t expiring in June, he would have resigned over “the proverbial poop hitting the fan.”
“We’ve known for some time that this was not going to be a pretty picture,” Heard said. “I feel ashamed. I’m embarrassed by this. I’m pissed that I wasn’t more insistent with Pat (Finnigan) in getting the information we needed.”
Landon Fake, general manager of the Snow Bowl and the town’s parks and recreations director, resigned a week after Finnigan.
While board members all said they had been aware on some level that the project was being mismanaged, it took resident Chris Morong, a former member of an ad hoc project redevelopment budget committee, submitting a Freedom of Information Access Act request for Snow Bowl financial information in December to nudge the board into agreeing to the audit.
“We own it as a board,” French said. “We didn’t pay enough attention to it. We had 6 million excuses,” he said.
“Someone should have been raising their hand, saying, ‘Fire! Fire!’ ” French said.