Winterport town manager to retire at end of 2018

By Ethan Andrews | May 11, 2018
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Winterport Town Manager Phil Pitula at the Town Office, a building constructed during his 13-year tenure.

Town Manager Phil Pitula, who is retiring at the end of the year, recently recalled the moment in 2005 when he learned about the job he would hold for the next 13 years.

He was retired from MBNA, where he had been a facilities manager, and had been playing golf when he came home and his wife asked if he'd seen the job listing. Pitula had been a selectman in the 1980s, though the job suited him less, he realized, than that of town manager.

Looking back, he said, the town didn't need any kind of radical improvement, but he thought he could do some things better.

Soon after he was hired, Pitula, a longtime musician who now plays bass with Rivertown, started the Winterport Music Festival. The event was inspired by an annual bluegrass and blueberry pie event at Union Meeting House — "I thought, I'll go bigger than that," he said. "It will be better for the town" and an answer to the American Folk Festival in Bangor, which passed over local bands for established national acts. The rain-or-shine event featuring one big act and an undercard of local talent was held on the first weekend of August for seven years.

As a bedroom community to Bangor and Belfast, Winterport kept taxes low and managed without local zoning regulations. The laid-back governance has suited the town, Pitula said, though occasionally it rubs residents the wrong wrong way — when Dollar General opened a store on a previously residential strip of Route 1A, some neighbors raised hell, to no avail — but the balance has never fully tipped. The only formal bid for zoning that Pitula could recall involved a pair of public hearings no one attended.

"Winterport is Winterport," he said. "People love the lack of regulations. When something like that happens, they get fired up for a while, then it settles down again."

Younger newcomers drawn by lower property taxes have clamored on occasion for more services. As Pitula sees it, you can have whatever services you want, but you have to pay for them. The town has an older population, including many on fixed incomes, and historically no one wants to pay more.

That's been a taller order as the cost of education has gone up in recent years and expenses that once came from state income taxes have been shifted to local property taxpayers. Pitula said in some years the town decreased its own budget to keep taxes from spiking.

"It's always a game of what you can do," he said.

One thing Winterport was able to do is move its Town Office out of a former school building into a former medical office and pair it with a new location for the Fire Department. That happened in 2015. The town used some savings and took a 20-year, $1.5 million bond, of which Pitula said just 6 ½ years of payments remain.

Pitula officially steps down Dec. 31. In his return to retirement, he plans to work on his house — the second-oldest residence in Winterport — make music, spend time with his five grandchildren, and of course get back to playing golf.

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