Mars Hill Town Manager David Cyr speaks during a Mars Hill Town Council meeting in the Mars Hill Fire Department station. Credit: David Marino Jr. | The Star-Herald

MARS HILL, Maine — A financial dispute over recreation funding escalated long-standing tension between two central Aroostook towns. Caught in the middle: local children who wanted to play soccer.

Four children from Blaine will be allowed to resume playing in Mars Hill’s soccer program after Mars Hill voted to accept a $50 stipend, ending a dispute over funding.

In July, Blaine residents voted unanimously against giving $13,500 to Mars Hill’s recreation department. Many residents cited Blaine’s lack of involvement in the department, saying that Mars Hill had not consulted Blaine on programming decisions.

Four children from Blaine recently signed up to play soccer in the program run by Mars Hill’s recreation department. Mars Hill told the children that their involvement would be suspended until the towns settled their financial differences, Mars Hill Town Manager David Cyr said on Tuesday.

“Luckily, it was resolved within a week,” Cyr said.

While many view the two towns located on the same stretch of Route 1 as indistinguishable, they have occasionally run into disputes similar to many municipalities across Maine. What makes the recreation issue especially emotional for Blaine officials was its effect on the town’s children.

Cyr said that Mars Hill and Blaine were neighboring communities that had collaborated in several ventures. For example, both towns — in conjunction with Bridgewater — quickly joined a united front to fund the Central Aroostook Ambulance Service in January.

But they have also had many past differences, including those stemming from a push by Mars Hill last year to build a new community center. Blaine residents turned down a funding plan for the center because they believed financing the Central Aroostook Ambulance Service was more critical. Blaine Town Manager Janet Bradbury said there had also been sporadic controversy in Blaine about Mars Hill’s recreation program for years.

The meeting quickly became emotionally charged, with Bradbury — who was joined by Blaine Selectman Paul Deschaine and former Selectman Kevin Grass — telling the council that financial disputes between towns should not deprive Blaine’s children of participating in the soccer program.

From left: Blaine Town Manager Janet Bradbury speaks during a Mars Hill Town Council meeting; Former Blaine Board of Selectmen Kevin Grass speaks during the same meeting. Credit: David Marino | The Star-Herald

Bradbury proposed that Blaine children be eligible to play after the town paid a stipend for each student, just as the nearby town of Bridgewater has done for more than 10 years.

Mars Hill Town Council Chairman Michael Stitham initially took a hard line toward Blaine’s delegation, though he later voted for both proposals. He said Blaine’s decision to pull funding had made it difficult for Mars Hill to fund its recreation department.

“You guys took a 54-0 vote to pull out of our rec,” Stitham said. “And now you want us to [bend over backward?]”

Blaine officials said Mars Hill had failed to communicate with Blaine on recreation programs and left Blaine out of significant decisions. Bradbury also said Mars Hill had offered little programming during the summer and rarely offered non-sports activities.

Stiltham responded that there was little more Mars Hill could do as it faced the COVID-19 pandemic and several essential funding decisions, such as those for the Central Aroostook Ambulance Service.

Mars Hill also voted to establish an inter-town recreation board — with three Mars Hill residents and three Blaine residents — to settle recreation disputes between the two towns.

Grass said that about five years ago, there was supposed to be a similar advisory board on recreation created with residents of Mars Hill and Blaine. He complained that Mars Hill had never begun that board.

Mars Hill Recreation Director David Collins said that the board had been established about four years ago, with three residents each from Mars Hill and Blaine. He said it lasted about three or four months, and “petered out” because Blaine’s members stopped attending.

Officials from both towns said they hoped the new board would not experience such a fate, and that it could allow the nearby communities to resolve their differences equally. Blaine residents will need to vote in a town meeting to re-establish funding for the recreation department rejected in 2020.

Mars Hill (about 1,400 people according to census data) is often closely associated with the neighboring smaller communities of Blaine (700) and Bridgewater (600). For example, students from all three towns attend SAD 42 schools — though Bridgewater is not officially part of the district.