SKOWHEGAN — Selectmen this week voted to increase funding by 50 percent for Main Street Skowhegan. The vote was close and came after impassioned pleas from merchants and supporters of the program.
Selectman Steve Spaulding broke a 2-2 deadlock of selectmen to take $30,000 per year for the next three years from the downtown tax-increment financing district to fund the program. The program, one of 10 in the state, previously received $20,000 annually from the TIF.
The final vote was 3-1, with Selectmen Betty Austin and Don Lowe voting with Spaulding in the majority.
Selectman Newell Graf was the lone dissenter. Board Chairman Joy Mase was not present for the meeting Tuesday night.
Spaulding said he originally voted to give the program $20,000, without an increase, because no director is in place.
The director’s job is the only paid position in an otherwise volunteer program, he said. Executive Director Jennifer Olsen recently stepped down to become the director of Waterville Main Street.
“I told them, ‘We’ll give you the $20,000 and revisit this next year’ — they are not going to advertise for a new director until the beginning of January — ‘and see where you are then,’” Spaulding said Friday.
Spaulding said he changed his motion after seeing the audience support, and the board voted again, this time to provide the larger amount. He said there is about $200,000 in the downtown TIF.
“I did what was right,” Spaulding said. “With that many people representing that many businesses being that passionate about it — I’m there to serve the people, and they are some of the people. It was quite an eye-opening experience.”
Town Manager John Doucette Jr. said the downtown TIF fund is money from taxes on upgrades and new additions to buildings and business in the downtown business district. The new tax money is diverted into the TIF and can be tapped to aid economic development.
The TIF takes the change in property value, “captures” the tax on the change and directs the money into the TIF fund for use downtown.
The downtown TIF so far has supported the new River Front Trail, security cameras for downtown businesses and the engineering for municipal parking lot improvements.
Doucette, a nonvoting member of the Main Street board, said the group was delaying advertising for a new director until the result of voting this week on increased funding is known.
“Now, I’m sure they’ll be going forward and start looking for a new director,” he said
Graf on Friday said he stuck to his vote, despite being in the minority, because he believes in keeping spending down wherever possible.
Selectman Don Lowe said he voted for the increase because of a recent presentation by Main Street secretary Amber Lambke that showed how much work the group is doing. Austin could not be reached for comment Friday.
“I was really surprised what they do,” Lowe said Friday. “I said, why not give them a chance and see what they can do in the next three years?”
In her presentation to the board last month, Lambke told selectmen that more than $4 million in public and private investment has come to downtown Skowhegan, bringing 21 new businesses and 43 new jobs since the program Main Street Skowhegan came to town in 2005.
She said the salary for a new director has been budgeted at $32,500, but the overall operating budget is between $75,000 and $85,000 a year with salary, office rental and supplies and mandatory national conferences.
“I’m quite pleased with the turnout of the vote,” Lambke said Friday. “It’s the first multi-year commitment that we’ve gotten from the selectmen, and we think that will go a long way to attracting a qualified candidate for our director position.”
Doug Harlow — 612-2367