Town officials in Oakland and Sidney are concerned that a disagreement over a communications tower could spoil relations between the two communities — but neither side is backing down.
Two years ago, the towns entered into a contractual agreement for use of the tower, which allows fire and police responders in each community to talk to each other via radio.
Under the contract, Oakland paid the tower’s owner, William Mushero, to lease the tower for five years, at a cost of $4,800 per year. Meanwhile, Sidney shoulders some of the expense by paying $1,200 per year to Oakland for use of the tower.
Sidney was unhappy with the level of service it was receiving from the tower, which is on High Street in Oakland, and now wants out of the contract, which has three years remaining on it.
Oakland’s town council members say they expect payment in full.
The next $300 quarterly payment is due at the end of March. Once that deadline passes, no one knows exactly what will happen.
“We are treading kind of lightly on this because we just don’t want to ruin our working relationship,” Oakland Councilor Dana Wrigley said. “That is what is bothering us the worst.”
The most tangible expression of the good working relationship between the towns is their fire departments, which provide mutual aid to each other at virtually every fire in the area.
Wrigley and Oakland Town Manager Peter Nielsen both said that the towns also have a broader relationship that has been friendly, rather than contentious or competitive.
Still, Wrigley said that while the council hasn’t yet discussed specific options to compel Sidney to pay, he wouldn’t be in favor of dropping the matter.
“I think it will be pursued one way or another,” he said. “I can’t believe we want to ship these costs onto the Oakland taxpayers.”
The difference in opinion between the towns was thrown into sharper focus in late February, when the two governing bodies met to discuss the issue.
Before that, Sidney offered Oakland a $1,500 check to cancel the contract. John Whitcomb, chairman of the Sidney Board of Selectmen called the check a good faith gesture. Oakland has returned the check.
The service provided by the tower was affected when the FCC switched emergency responders over to a different frequency. Once the transition was completed, Whitcomb said, the Sidney fire chief and police chief found they couldn’t communicate by radio, even if they were standing right next to each other.
Because of this, Whitcomb said Sidney has spent about $5,000 on a different communications system that doesn’t rely on the tower.
Whitcomb says that because the level of service was not adequate to allow emergency responders to communicate, the contract is null and void, allowing Sidney to opt out without making any more payments.
Oakland councilor Don Borman disagrees.
“I would say your interpretation is probably not 100 percent,” he told Whitcomb during their meeting.
The Oakland council position is that Sidney took on all the risks and responsibilities of the contract, and that a shift in the town’s circumstances shouldn’t be paid for by Oakland.
Neither town has gotten a legal opinion on the dispute, because both towns typically rely on the Maine Municipal Association for their legal advice, and the organization stays out of disputes between two of its members.
The towns have also been reluctant to pay for the services of outside attorneys to resolve a situation that involves only about $3,500, part of which Sidney has offered to pay.
“The amount is small enough that we have not resorted to that,” Nielsen said.
Whitcomb said that Oakland’s choices are either accepting the partial payment or accepting none at all.
“We were doing a good faith thing,” Whitcomb said. “I can honestly say as a board, we will go with null and void, or we can go with good faith.”
Officials from both towns say that to back off of their positions wouldn’t be fair to residents of their towns.
Wrigley said there is also something larger than $2,000 at stake.
“We depend on our neighbors,” he said, “and they depend on us.”