Fire Chief Retracts Request for Additional Fire Fighters to Cover Town Hill
BAR HARBOR—The police department will now have a mental health liaison thanks to the use of American Rescue Plan Act funds. The $1.9 trillion package was enacted of March 2021 with the intent of combatting the impacts of COVID-19. Bar Harbor received some of that aid. On Tuesday, the Bar Harbor Town Council approved the use of some of those funds to pay for two items, a mental health liaison of the police department and a power screen for public works.
ARPA funding must be committed by December 2024. Originally, it could only be used for public health response issues and certain other uses, but those opportunities were expanded for spending, to include things such as Jesup Memorial Library support and a police cruiser purchase.
MENTAL HEALTH HELP
The police department originally requested the position as a service enhancement that could be funded via the general fund.
Police Chief Jim Willis told councilors in January that people in crisis can sit in the MDI Hospital’s emergency room for seven to 10 days. Sometimes they might need to be restrained. Sometimes they might run out of the building. Willis had said that his department doesn’t always have the officers available to stand watch over those patients and the hospital has sometimes hired the sheriff’s department to come down to help when patients are warehoused at the hospital.
“It’s not working well,” he said and later added, “We’re not going there until they’re ready to pop.”
On Tuesday, Captain David Kerns said that he’s seen the benefits of the position. This past month the department has been working to make a contract with Aroostook Mental Health Services, Inc. (AMHC), a non-profit community mental health center that provides behavioral healthcare. Bar Harbor would pay $60,000, and $40,000 would come from Mount Desert’s budget for the shared position.
Vice Chair Matthew Hochman said that with the national discussion around policing and mental health, it’s really important for the position to exist in the town.
Councilor Jill Goldthwait said she was concerned about one-time money for a continuing expense, but she is in support of the position.
“I think it’s such an important position that I’d like to try to figure out how to fund it next year,” Hochman said.
The ARPA funds are limited and do not perpetuate. For the position to continue to be funded in future years, funds would have to be allocated from the general fund, which influences property taxes.
The Power Screen
The council unanimously approved the use of $90,000 of ARPA funds for a new power screen for the town’s public works department. The equipment screens the compost and leaf pile and during the winter is used to screen sand. The town’s former power screen is no longer in use. This purchase would allow the town to continue the composting operations for the spring.
Councilor Erin Cough asked if the screen could be used for food waste in the future. Public Works Director Bethany Leavitt said that it could. It is a one-time purchase. Cough asked if the town should set up a CIP for the new screen’s replacement in the future.
FISCAL YEAR 2024: a police cruiser, the library, and the YMCA
The council also spoke about potentially allocating ARPA funds for the Fiscal Year 2024 budget, which is the budget currently under discussion and is voted on at town meeting in June.
Kerns said the police department was looking at ways to pull money out of the 2024 budget. The money for a cruiser replacement is currently in the capital improvement budget. ARPA funds could instead be used. It would be $45,000 for the cruiser’s purchase and $7,500 to equip it. That tentative allocation was unanimously supported.
Nonprofits can be the recipients of the town’s ARPA funds. The Jesup Memorial Library asked for an increase of approximately $120,000 this year to pay 80% of its workers health benefits. This is in addition to the money normally requested by the library.
Councilor Jill Goldthwait said that she wanted to make sure it was clear to the library that this was one-time funding and not an automatic increase each budget year.
Councilor Erin Cough said her concern is that the library has said it would continue to ask for additional increases each year. In FY25, that would be a doubling of the current amount. She said she was all for trying to make sure that the library is providing living wages in the community and health benefits for everyone, but she said that is putting a large amount of money into the budget for FY25. $120,000 is two police cruisers or the mental health position, she said.
“This is a hard one for me,” Cough said. “I’m not sure it’s the best use of our ARPA funds right now.”
Goldthwait said she was torn for the same reason but because it is ARPA funding, it’s an opportunity to help the Jesup. She volunteers at the library, she said, and she can’t imagine the town without it.
Council Vice Chair Matthew Hochman agreed. “We can help the library out this year,” he said and worry about the subsequent budget years when they happen.
Cough said this isn’t about building the library or funding the construction. It would be easier for her if it was for brick and mortar.
“There are many nonprofits on this island that don’t pay 80% of their employees’ health insurance.” Or even offer any health insurance. “It’s not that I don’t like the library. It’s not that I don’t believe in it.” She, too, has gone there with her kids and sat in on committees, she said, but felt it should be something voted in by the town to support it with the tax dollars rather than the council via ARPA funds.
Peacock said that the money isn’t necessarily earmarked or specific. It doesn’t mean they have to use it for whatever reason they asked for.
Councilor Joe Minutolo said it would be good to look at what other things ARPA could potentially be used for. Maybe tabling it or funding it partially. All except Cough voted in favor of tentatively using ARPA funds for the library.
A similar discussion occurred with the MDI YMCA’s request for an additional $50,000.
Hochman made the motion to tentatively support the request, but prior to anyone seconding the motion, he said that his only trepidation was that the Y charges a membership fee.
Cough said she had worries similar to her worries about the library increase. She said the town owns the YMCA and that it’s a bit easier to understand giving the building financial support because of that. Goldthwait said the contrast between the Y request and the library request shows the membership fee difference. She can’t envision the Y staying open if it didn’t have a membership fee.
Minutolo said the pool is the big culprit on upkeep and energy costs for the YMCA, adding, “Boy, not having a pool in town for the winter time would be pretty tough.” All except Cough voted in favor.
At the January budget meeting YMCA board member Dean Read said, “The community couldn’t support the Y if it charged what it cost to run it.”
The Y isn’t asking for money for capital improvement. It needs money for operations, he said.
FIRE DEPARTMENT AND OTHER BUDGET DISCUSSION
Fire Chief Matt Bartlett retracted his request for two additional staff members to bring faster response times to Town Hill, stating that it was a tough decision, but it was not the time to ask for the positions. His original request had been for four staff. He narrowed that to two recently.
Councilor Gary Friedmann said that he appreciated Bartlett’s choice. And said that when he looks to trying to pare down the budget, he thinks about his own top priorities for the future of the town, which to him are sustainability and housing. The Bar Harbor Story has a related article we published today.
The council tentatively agreed on reviewing several service enhancements in the town manager’s budget including a data architect, community engagement, town council facilitated meetings, and grant management program.
There was also discussion of revenue via the town’s planning department with some back and forth between the council and Planning Director Michele Gagnon and Code Enforcement Officer Angela Chamberlain. The planning department submitted a proposal for an across-the board increase of the department’s fees. The council had spoken earlier of a 40% increase to the short term rental fees, which currently is a $250 annual fee. Chamberlain said that they already raised more money than they needed for the short-term rental program. Erin Cough said that she thought the rate increase was justified to pay for a compliance program. There are currently 606 short-term rentals which bring in $169,000 a year for the town.
Cough also wanted to add $50,000 to legal fees. There was discussion about if they could use the cruise ship fees to pay for cruise ship litigation. It is currently unknown if they can.
Interim Town Manager and Finance Director Gilbert also explained that the first year of the bond is only for interest on the town’s 20-year bonds, which eases people into an increase. That reduces the FY2024 bond obligation by $638,532.
LINKS TO LEARN MORE:
To learn more about the capital improvement projects (potential and ongoing), click here.
To read about potential service enhancements, click here.
To peruse all the town’s currently uploaded budget documents, click here.
Police Department Presentation – View presentation video (1:14:02)
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