Board urges RSU 20 to turn former central office over to townTax bill to go out, despite lack of school budget
Searsport — In an effort to regain ownership of the former School Administrative 56 central office building and give Regional School Unit 20 a way to decrease the 2013-14 budget, selectmen are asking the district to reconsider a four-year-old request from the town.
Selectmen agreed unanimously to send the district a letter outlining their interest in acquiring the building and the property at 6 Mortland Road during the regular meeting Tuesday night, Aug. 6. The building now serves as the special services office for the district.
According to previously published reports, selectmen wrote then RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux expressing the town's interest in acquiring the building from the district when the former SADs 56 and 34 consolidated in 2009. The building was vacant at that time, but Mailloux told the town the building would remain under district ownership because it was still being used for educational purposes. Tradition and state law dictates that if a school system ceases to use a building for "educational purposes," then the school system is obligated to offer it to the town. No offer was made to Searsport because of the RSU's plans to continue using the building.
Tuesday night, Town Manager James Gillway said Board Chairman Aaron Fethke, who was not present for the meeting, wanted to revisit the issue with RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter, especially given the difficulty the district has experienced with getting a 2013-14 budget passed at the polls this summer. To that end, Gillway presented selectmen with a copy of the letter Fethke drafted on behalf of the town.
Because the building and land abut the Dan Rich Public Safety Building, Gillway said acquiring the property would give the town an option for expanding the public safety building in the future. The building would provide the town with much needed additional office space and another place to store records.
“We believe relinquishing this building to the Town of Searsport now would serve to save the RSU its annual maintenance and utility costs for the building and show your willingness to work with our municipality,” stated the letter. “The school board now needs to find ways to make further significant cuts in the budget in order to formulate a passable budget. It will need to make hard and controversial decisions in order to convince the public to pass a budget.”
The letter further stated that relinquishing the building to the town would be an “easy, non-controversial step” the district could take to reduce costs, and asserted the town is prepared to assume the expense of maintaining the building.
The letter also suggested the district consider moving special services staff to the Stockton Springs Elementary School building since it will now serve as an early childhood development center.
Selectmen then agreed to authorize Fethke to sign the letter and send it to the district for consideration.
Selectman Joe Perry said the issue has been ongoing for several years, and it was time the town worked with the district to resolve it.
“It's time to put pressure on the school committee,” he said.
Selectmen agreed to grant the town assessor the authority to commit the town's real estate taxes based on the $33.4 million proposed RSU 20 budget that voters in all eight towns rejected at the polls July 30.
The board made that decision based on a recommendation from Gillway, who told selectmen state statute allowed the town to commit taxes based on the figure resulting from the most recent budget validation meeting. Normally tax bills would have gone out two to three weeks ago, but Gillway said that's been on hold due to the lack of a final school budget.
Gillway said he sought advice on the issue from the state Department of Education and Maine Municipal Association before bringing it up to the board. He also contacted neighboring towns to see how those town officials are handling the situation, and said some have shipped out tax bills based on the $33.4 million figure.
But doing so, cautioned the town manager, does not come without some risk.
“There are pitfalls to it as far as having a good assessment,” said Gillway.
If the final budget comes in at substantially higher or lower than the last figure that was rejected at the polls, Gillway said the town “will have some hoops to jump through to make it good.”
If the town does send out bills now and voters approve the budget at a lower amount, Gillway said the additional funds collected would be used to offset taxes at the next town meeting. If the school budget is higher, Gillway said the board could call a special meeting to address that issue.
Because the Sept. 2 due date for taxes was set at town meeting, Gillway said there is no flexibility on that date and he wants to avoid sending tax bills out after that due date. Worse, Gillway said, the town could find itself in the position of sending out bills with interest due if the town waited until the next budget vote and residents reject the proposal for a third time.
“That would be very hard to explain to the voters, and it would be unfair,” he said.
After some additional discussion, selectmen voted 4-0 to give the assessor the option to commit taxes based on the $33.4 million budget figure and to come before the board if there are any changes in the number in the immediate future.
In other school-related business, the board tabled a motion to appoint Searsport resident Jim Cunningham to complete an unexpired term on the RSU 20 Board of Directors until the next meeting to allow for public comment. Gillway said the town advertised the position, and Cunningham — a former director — was the only person who expressed interest in serving.
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Tanya has been a general news reporter in Waldo County since 1997.
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