Last Warrant Budget Subcommittee Meeting Before Next Week’s Meetings Focuses on Governance
BAR HARBOR— Four Warrant Committee members and two town staff gathered around the oblong table under the harsh lights of a third-floor conference room in the Bar Harbor municipal building Wednesday night, binders open in front of them, papers and numbers and explanations relaying page after page of data. And in that data one of the many stories of a town.
Budget meetings like the Warrant Subcommittee on General Governance are open to the public, but the public seldom—if ever—comes. Going through line item after line item isn’t necessarily a snazzy process. But each of those lines in a budget tell a story about what is important monetarily to a town and hopefully also to the people in it.
The Bar Harbor Town Council has spoken and held workshops on its priorities. Infrastructure, housing, and tourism capacity were the ones highlighted early in 2022. Michele Gagnon, the town’s planning director, often speaks of work her department has done or is doing toward increasing housing in Bar Harbor despite limiting zoning and a limited amount of buildable land. Similarly, the town’s Comprehensive Plan is meant to steer the town, despite changeover in councilors and staff, toward a future goal and priorities. For the school committee, those priorities focus on giving students the best education possible in a building that doesn’t need constant maintenance and can support the needs of those same kids and staff.
In the budget process, and particularly through warrant subcommittee workshops, all of that combines through questions and work as the Warrant Committee and Town Council join with staff to try to find a budget that doesn’t harm the taxpayers’ wallets too much. At least, that was the feeling at the Thursday meeting run by Carol Chappell.
Chappell, Caleb Cough, Ezra Sassaman, Kathleen St. Germain, Gagnon and Code Enforcement Officer Angela Chamberlain spoke to the service enhancements that relate to this particular committee during the 90-minute meeting. The meeting is meant to solicit thoughts from subcommittee members. They then email those thoughts to the chair. The chair collates those suggestions and the entire committee will meet to discuss the recommendations to bring to the council on Tuesday.
At this specific Wednesday subcommittee meeting, time was spent on concerns about bringing down a budget for middle income residents and lower income residents, especially people in Bar Harbor proper who have dealt with the increased valuation on their homes (like the rest of the town), but also have to deal with water and sewer rate increases.
Discussion also focused on short-term rental monitoring, which Chamberlain would like to have done by an outside organization, which, she said, could help the department find more violations.
The planning and code departments suggested across the board increases for their respective departments’ fees to help generate revenue, but also because those fees haven’t increased since 2017. The staff suggested increases are 6% for code enforcement and 10% for planning. They did not request an increase for short-term rental fees because those fees have been the only ones that had been increased since 2017. They went from a one-time $50 fee to an annual fee of $250. Some councilors want a 40% increase on those fees. Gagnon and Chamberlain worried that this wasn’t equitable.
Gagnon said that there must be a relationship between the fee the department charges and how much it costs to run a program. If that relationship isn’t there, when there is an appeal and litigation about that fee, the town will likely lose that litigations. She added that some projects don’t have 100 percent cost recovery.
Chamberlain said it’s about equity and fairness. Both said they wanted to take a comprehensive look at all of the fees and see what fees have more of an impact.
REQUEST FOR ADDITIONAL STAFF
Gagnon also spoke to her request for both a housing planner and a staff planner. When the town created the housing policy framework in 2019, one of the strategies was to identify the barriers to zoning. Since then, they’ve been chipping away at those barriers and mostly completed the framework. One aspect of that was a report done in conjunction with the chamber and an independent contractor, which found that the planning department was understaffed, she said.
Boards, committees, and processing applications are monthly tasks for her staff, which gives them little time to focus on projects that move the community forward. It takes them 1.5 staff members just to cover the monthly meetings.
If they add the staff planner, it increases the ability to do projects by threefold. The housing person wouldn’t staff committees but would be driving the process to find ways to capitalize the housing fund, find partners to move housing projects forward, and ensuring that there is zoning that allows housing to happen. They would focus more on program development.
“There are things that we can do for housing that should start right now,” she said and added that the town can’t keep building into an ordinance that’s deficient.
Part of her reasoning for adding that staff now is because of the comprehensive plan, which should be done this year. During the year or two after the comprehensive plan’s enactment is usually when volunteers are energized and motivated to make positive changes. At the same time, in Bar Harbor, ordinance changes take so long that those changes need to start now, she said.
PILOTS AND COOPERATING AGENCIES
The group also spoke about payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTS) that nonprofits give to the town. Nonprofits do not pay property taxes for their buildings or land that is used in relation to their core mission. The lack of money coming from those institutions drew concern.
There was a brief discussion about employees 6% cost of living increase and the cooperating agencies request. Chappell said that she doesn’t believe the cooperating agency section is the place to nickel and dime things.
LINKS TO LEARN MORE
Council packet with Gagnon memo
NEXT RELATED MEETINGS
Warrant Committee meets Monday, February 27, at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at the Bar Harbor Municipal Building.
Town Council meets with the Warrant Committee, Tuesday, February 28, 6:30 p.m. at the same location.
Correction: We have taken out a parenthetical because it didn’t accurately convey the more recent plight of the revaluation for properties in downtown proper, which occurred in 2021. Apologies.
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