Residents at the annual town meeting March 24 butted heads over what the town's role should be in local economic development and the correct way to spend money from a tax increment financing zone.

The disagreements highlighted tensions between town officials and members of the town's Economic Development Committee over the kinds of business initiatives Unity should pursue and how to fund them.

A new website proposed by the committee that would promote Unity as a destination came under fire from some of the 50 residents at the meeting, who felt the town should limit its internet presence to municipal government business.

Unity has a basic website today, described by Selectman Penny Sampson as "not as good as some, but better than others." Rather than spend $5,000 on a new site as requested by the committee, Sampson suggested investing in the current site.

One member of the committee said the platform used by the town today is fine for basic government information, but doesn't allow for the type of economic development content that the committee envisions. When others objected to having two sites, committee member Jennifer deHart clarified that the new site would replace the current one.

Selectmen officially recommended no funding for the request, but a motion to defund it was shot down. The term "destination website" was amended to remove "destination" after objections to Unity marketing itself like a business. Committee members said they weren't attached to the word. The request for $5,000 was approved.

A committee request for $10,000 worth of street lighting met with some friction but passed.

A proposal to spend $3,000 on highway signs to entice travelers to stop in town and visit businesses and points of interest failed after some voters argued that businesses should pay for their own promotion.

Sampson said about a third of the money would go toward signs for noncommercial points of interest. The larger share would be spent on signs for small businesses through a grant-style program.

"For some small businesses, it could be a real boost," she said.

Among supporters of the expense was Mary Ann Hayes, a nonresident property owner who serves on the Economic Development Committee, who warned that the town is losing business to Waterville and Belfast.

"They're not saying here," she said. "They're not eating here, and it's hurting us."

The signs were nixed by a vote of 21-25.

Other items proposed by the economic development committee, including $10,000 for recreational trails and $6,000 for traffic calming measures passed without major objections. However, voters rejected a proposal to spend $15,000 on a lodging feasibility study by a vote of 23-27 after some residents argued it was too speculative.

The seven proposals by the Economic Development Committee all were recommended to be funded from the town's tax increment financing zone, which appeared to add a layer of confusion to the debates.

Tax increment financing, or TIF, is a way for towns to set aside taxes from added property value — the "increment" — while sheltering that same value from the state school funding formula.

Taxes from land and buildings within a TIF district are split two ways. Any value that existed before the property was added to the district goes to the town's general fund. Tax proceeds from added value, including new buildings or equipment, is set aside for TIF-eligible projects.

Unity's TIF district has existed for 20 years but has played a more prominent role in town business since January 2016 when voters expanded the district and created an economic development committee to advise on spending up to $55,000 of the tax district proceeds — totaling about $62,000 at the time — on "business retention and growth initiatives."

Sampson said economic development appropriations in the first two years were less contentious because they were loosely worded, and authority over the details was clearly placed with selectmen.

On Saturday, voters considering $59,000 in requests for the coming year repeatedly cast doubts on whether that was still the case. Sampson assured voters that the committee is advisory and all spending decisions are made by the selectmen. The comments, however, suggested unease about the committee that Sampson said exists in the Town Office, as well.

"That seems to be the problem between the selectmen and the Economic Development Committee," she said. "We don't trust each other."

Sampson later said some of the tension between the committee and selectmen came from different interpretations of the types of projects that qualify for TIF funding. Additionally, Sampson said, the town has received conflicting advice from experts, including a paid consultant and Maine Municipal Association.

This confusion prompted voters to amend several articles on the town meeting warrant to raise the money from new taxes rather than spending TIF proceeds. Other articles were passed over, to be revisited at a special town meeting April 18.

In town elections, Dan McCormick was elected to the Board of Selectmen after running unopposed for the seat.