Media Archive

Opinions mixed on county bond proposal

Article from The Piscataquis Observer, Vol. 166, No. 38, September 22, 2004

By Jessica Lee
Staff Writer

Observer Photo/Jessica Lee
JOBS FOR PISCATAQUIS Jane Jones, Milo town manager, speaks Tuesday afternoon at the kick-off for the Jobs For Piscataquis political action committee, formed to support the county-wide economic development bond initiative. The event was held at the parki

DOVER-FOXCROFT - County residents voiced concerns about the costs associated with the Piscataquis County economic development bond at the first of three public hearings on the issue held last week in Dover-Foxcroft.

The county is the first in Maine to seek the authority to bond for economic development projects.

On Nov. 2, county residents will vote on the proposed bonding of $952,000 to support four projects: $400,000 to fund the extension of the water main in Dover-Foxcroft to Pleasant River Lumber; $271,000 to fund the purchase/development of land in Milo for the Eastern Piscataquis Industrial Park; $131,000 for the expansion of the Greenville Industrial Park, and $150,000 to fund the completion of the Composites Incubator building located in the Greenville Industrial Park.

In opening comments at the Sept. 15 meeting. Commissioner Tom Lizotte told those attending that the total being sought in the referendum is minute about 1/10 th of a percentage that the county could legally seek for the purpose of economic development ($22 million).

According to a handout prepared for the county commissioners by Baton Peabody, bond counsel, the county's annual debt payment on the 10-year bond with 6 percent interest would be $129,346. That amount is broken down among the towns and unorganized territories based on property valuation.

The unorganized territories would pay 36.2 percent or $46,820 annually-of the towns, Dover-Foxcroft would pay the largest amount, 12.2 percent of the total or $15,817 annually, with Greenville close behind being responsible for 10.5 percent of the total or $13,526 each year. The remaining towns would pay between $5,489 (Milo) and $641 (Kingsbury Plantation) on an annual basis, with the average annual payment running about $3,000.

In Dover-Foxcroft, a taxpayer with a property valued at $100,000 would pay an additional $8 in property tax, Lizotte said.

For that money, the county is expected to receive nearly $3.5 million in state and federal matching funds for completion of the projects. The county's portion represents 21 percent of the total project costs.

Approximately two dozen county residents attended the first public hearing held at the Piscataquis County Superior Courtroom in Dover-Foxcroft, a handful of whom aired concerns about the impact the bond would have on the county budget and local property taxes.

Mark Scarano, executive director of the Piscataquis County Economic Development Council, spoke in favor of the bond. He explained the need for the Greenville projects and specifically the Composites Incubator building. "Traditionally, most businesses fail within three years," he said. The incubator would provide support to fledgling businesses working with woods composites during those volatile years.

Jane Jones, Milo town manager, explained the need for the Eastern Piscataquis Industrial Park. The economy of the Milo/Brownville area was hit hard within the last 10 years, she said, specifically citing the closure of the Dexter Shoe facility, the bankruptcy and closure of the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad, and the "ripple" impact of the
closure of the Millinocket paper mills.

Jones said that there had been inquiries in both towns from businesses looking to locate to the area to take advantage of the talents of displaced workers, but that there were no sites available.

"We don't want to be in that position again," she said.

The $1.1 million project to construct an industrial park in eastern Piscataquis County would allow those communities to "take control of our future and be proactive" in attracting jobs and growing the economy, Jones said.

Dover-Foxcroft Town Manager Jack Clukey explained the need for the water line extension to Pleasant River Lumber. "This project is about job preservation as much as creation," he said. The company presently employs 86, he added. Clukey said that the $400,000 in county money would match $700,000 in U.S. Department of Agriculture funds.

Jason Brochu, vice-president and co-owner of Pleasant River Lumber, echoed Clukey's comments and affirmed the company's commitment to the region. He said the company presently has a five-year plan to implement a $5 to $7 million expansion at the plant and added "we're very committed to fulfilling that as soon as possible." He said that if the mill were to catch fire, there would be inadequate fire protection and "80 to 90 jobs would be lost."

"We live with the fear of fire every day," he said.

Jim Gustafson, selectman from Bowerbank, expressed concerns about the referendum and the county's budget, which appears to climb annually. "From the perspective of a small town, I think the county is trying to climb out of a hole," he said. Gustafson said that the higher county taxes hurt the communities, as residents have less and less discretionary income.

He said the county assessment is a large chunk of the town of Bowerbank's property tax, accounting most recently for 37 percent of the budget. 'This county can not continue to increase taxes at this rate," he said.

Gustafson urged county officials to consider the return on its investment.

The Bowerbank selectman also pointed out that 70 percent of the tax burden from the bond issue is on small towns and unorganized territories not Dover-Foxcroft, Greenville and Milo, where the projects are located.

He said the high tax rate and unfriendly business climate can't be offset by "spending our way out of the problem."

Commissioner Lizotte agreed that the projects should be judged on their return in investment and added that "we have to get a better handle on spending at all levels, including the towns, county, schools and state." He said that if the economic development projects funded by the bond are a success, the property tax base in the county would as a result increase in the three service center communities eventually lessening the burden in the smaller towns and the UT.

Milo Town Manager Jones said that any increase in the regional economy translates well across the board in Piscataquis County communities. "There is a direct payback," she said. "As the county prospers, every person benefits." For example, those 86 employees at Pleasant River Lumber are paid salaries, which in turn goes to buy gas, food and other necessities locally.

George Johnson of Atkinson, also a member of the SAD 41 board, said he is concerned that the smaller towns and communities are bearing the brunt of the costs in this bond issue. He likened it to the town of Atkinson's participation in SAD 41: "We're involved in SAD 41 in Milo. We pay 11 percent of the costs, but we have only 6 percent of students enrolled."

Scarano pointed out that much of the labor in the service center communities Dover-Foxcroft, Milo and Greenville comes from the smaller towns.

Harry Williford, a selectman from Wellington, complained that the county in recent years has been "relentless in increasing taxes; they show no relief." He added that the bond issue may be a moot point if state residents support the so-called Palesky tax cap proposal in the same, election, which would force towns to implement much leaner budgets in order to meet the 10 percent cap on property taxes.

Williford said the tax cap, if enacted, would be devastating toWellington's budget.

"We are a poor town, with a very small population," he said. "We're mandated to pay county taxes, but if, the tax cap goes through, I can't see how we can [make that county payment]."

Williford suggested that any project that benefits Dover-Foxcroft should be a Dover-Foxcroft responsibility, not a county responsibility.

Jones, Milo's town manager, agreed with Williford's assertion about the Palesky tax cap. "If Palesky passes and withstands legal challenges, Milo will be in the same position as [Wellington]," she said.

With the bond referendum, Jane continued, the county is simply "empowering the commissioners" with the authority to borrow the funds for the projects "and not waiting for Palesky to sort itself out."

"It doesn't make any sense to tax yourself into prosperity," added Gustafson of Bowerbank.

Dennis Green, a selectman from Brownville and a member of the county budget committee, spoke in support of the bond. "We can't sit and wait for businesses to come to us. We have to help get jobs back here," he said.

Upcoming public hearings on the county bond initiative will be held at, 7 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 29 at the community house in Greenville and 7 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 13, at the Milo Town Hall.

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.