As the Winthrop Town Council continues to confront the fallout from a budgeting error that has left the town with a $1.5 million shortfall, while also overseeing many of the town’s day-to-day operations, some fresh faces could soon be joining the group.

Four residents are running for two open seats on the council and will appear on the Nov. 7 ballot. Just one of the candidates, Sarah Fuller, now serves on the council.

A third seat will be filled during a special election on Nov. 28, after June Bubier left the council at the beginning of October.

Besides Fuller, the candidates appearing on the Nov. 7 ballot are Scott Eldridge, the business manager in Regional School Unit 4; Elizabeth McKenney, the owner of a Winthrop-area taxi service; and Anthony “Andy” Wess, who ran Lakeside Motel & Cabins in East Winthrop for 30 years, before selling the business and retiring this year.

The largest challenge facing the seven-member council in the coming year will be recovering from the $1.5 million shortfall, which has depleted the town’s reserve funds, and which was the result of a miscalculation of the Winthrop School Department’s revenues two years ago.

Councilors conduct much of their activity during monthly meetings. In the coming year, they’ll have to decide what mix of cost-cutting, taxation and borrowing is needed to bring the town back from the brink of bankruptcy, while also funding programs, infrastructure projects and a school district that had about 900 students last year.

They’ll also have to work with local school officials, who have disagreed with councilors about the origin of the shortfall and how to fund the schools, and bridled at the way councilors have treated them in recent months.

Sarah Fuller

The one incumbent candidate, Fuller, runs her own public relations firm, Fuller Ink, and has served three consecutive terms on the council. As the group’s chairwoman, she has been one of its most active participants.

She has a bachelor’s degree in geography from George Washington University and a master’s degree in public relations from the University of Miami, and also has been active with local organizations including the Winthrop Area Rotary, the Winthrop Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce and Kennebec Land Trust.

“I generally work well with everybody,” said Fuller, who is 41. “I think that I have the experience and understanding to do a good job in the role. I’ve proven that over the past several years.”

During the town’s recent budget negotiations, Fuller helped pass a $6.99 million town spending plan that was drafted by former Town Manager Peter Nielsen and that had no spending increases, but that postponed several infrastructure investments. The council also approved going forward with the construction of a $1.8 million fire station, a project funded by loans and grants.

While Fuller would like the schools to be well-funded in future years, she said, she also opposed several budgets proposed by the Winthrop School Department on the grounds that they can’t be afforded this year.

Voters approved an $11.1 million school budget, which is down 1 percent from last year, and down $300,000 from the amount first proposed by school officials last summer.

“I’m a huge proponent of excellent public education,” Fuller said. “My past record would show that, but the fact that (the) town is nearly bankrupt, and given the serious fiscal situation … it was necessary, based on the fact that annually (the School Department has) been able to save between $200,000 and $300,000, and to improve their programs the whole time. … Holding the line and making some reductions for one year did not seem unreasonable.”

The town’s overall tax rate increased this year because of costs related to the shortfall, from $1,584 per $100,000 of property value to $1,713 per $100,000.

While auditors have warned that it could take Winthrop at least five years to recover from its financial challenges, Fuller said she thinks the recovery could take closer to two or three. That recovery will consume much of the town’s attention, but she would also like the council to eventually focus on goals laid out in the town’s comprehensive plan, such as affordable housing, road improvements and economic development.

None of the other candidates have been on the Town Council before, but they all said their experiences running businesses, organizations and civic groups would help them work with other councilors to make fiscally responsible decisions.

Scott Eldridge

Eldridge, 61, has experience in both education and business, having worked as a special education teacher and as a senior manager for Federal Express. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Maine Orono and a master’s degree in education administration from the University of Phoenix. He also retired as a captain after serving 14 years in the National Guard and U.S. Army Reserves.

For the last eight years, Eldridge has worked as a business manager for RSU 4, a school district with a budget exceeding $18 million that includes Sabattus, Wales and Litchfield.

According to Eldridge, his twin backgrounds would help the Town Council improve its relationship with the Winthrop School Department while working to resolve the current financial struggles.

“I think there’s been a big rift between the council and the School Board,” he said. “I really think I have the experience on both sides of the fence, so to speak, that could maybe help make a difference, and maybe mend some fences, and could help things get back on track.”

Eldridge declined to identify steps he thinks the Town Council should take, saying that he would instead like to participate in several meetings to “understand where the issues are.” But, he added, the council’s overall goals should be “keeping taxes as low as possible” and “making sure students get the education they deserve.” He also suggested that the town should consider hiring a different auditing firm.

Besides resolving the current funding shortfall, the council should consider steps that would attract more businesses to Winthrop, Eldridge added.

Elizabeth McKenney

McKenney, 54, runs her own company, Central Maine Taxi, and has also organized the annual summer concert series at Norcross Point for eight years. She has a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Bentley University and is studying part-time at University of Maine at Augusta for a second degree in English.

A frequent attendee of Town Council meetings, McKenney said that she’s running in order to help the town “get fiscally on track, protect our schools, bring civility back to council meetings, and listen to and communicate better with residents.”

According to McKenney, the council has taken out too many loans to cover the town’s costs in recent years, and she criticized current councilors for refusing to spend $100,000 in anticipated state revenue to the School Department. Town officials have defended that decision, in part because the revenue will arrive incrementally throughout this year and won’t be a reliable way to cover the town’s costs, while it will be available in full next year.

Still, McKenney said, the town should try to spend that income even if it arrives in “dribs and drabs. … If you have a paycheck and you have bills to pay, you don’t put that money into a non-interest bearing account. They should be paying the bills as they’re coming.”

McKenney also said that the Town Council has too often targeted the School Department for spending cuts, even though the costs of education have been rising because of spending requirements from the state.

One of the most costly of those requirements is special education. While in the 1970s, the state and federal government used to pay all special education costs, federal support for special education has remained flat since 2005. Meanwhile local districts have had to cover more and more of those costs, according to the University of Maine.

At the same time, McKenney lamented the negative tenor of discussions between the Town Council and Gary Rosenthal, superintendent of the School Department.

“They need to communicate better,” McKenney said. “The Town Council has been so vitriolic when dealing with Gary. Their whole sole purpose seems to be getting rid of him, and I don’t think that’s productive, especially where he has gotten things in line.”

McKenney would also like to see better communication by the town about tax relief programs that are available to the elderly and people on fixed incomes, she said, suggesting that information on those programs could be sent out with residents’ tax bills.

Both McKenney and Wess ran for Town Council last spring.

Andy Wess

Wess, 65, said that Winthrop “is spending too much.” While he praised the Fire Department and other local services, he also said he would take a “more conservative” approach than many current councilors.

“I agree with the (new) fire house, but I’m not sure we have to spend that kind of money,” said Wess, who ran his business with his wife for 30 years before retiring this year. “I think we need to be more mindful of our budgets than what it’s costing taxpayers to live in Winthrop.” Given the town’s financial challenges, Wess continued, “I’d like to see us try to hold the line (on local spending) and try to not make certain mistakes we’ve made in the past.”

As the co-owner of Lakeside Motel & Cabins, Wess said that he was able to grow the operation “from almost nothing to a really successful business that was giving back to the community, and that experience of growing a business is going to be very helpful to me. It will help me to look more carefully at budgets and spending.”

Wess has been active with other local organizations, such as Winthrop Area Rotary and town committees. He is the current chairman of the town’s zoning board of appeals and also sits on the recreation committee. He also helped create the town’s comprehensive plan and has considered running for Town Council in past years, he said, but chose not to because his business “was all encompassing.”

Wess does not know who was responsible for the mistake that led to the town’s current, $1.5 million shortfall, but he called it “strange” that public officials still haven’t presented a clear explanation of the matter. If such a mistake had happened in his business, he said, he’d learn how it happened and make sure it wasn’t repeated.

At the same time, Wess said he could probably have a good relationship with other councilors and members of the School Department.

“I think there is probably room for an open mindedness on both sides,” he said. “I tend to be a person that looks for consensus in all public kind of meetings. When we did the comprehensive plan, I talked to everyone on the board, and on the zoning board I look for consensus. … It doesn’t serve anyone to be at odds.”

The winner of the Nov. 7 races will each serve three-year terms on the Town Council. The two seats are currently held by Fuller and Linda MacDonald, who is not running for re-election.

There is about one year left on the third open seat that will be filled during the Nov. 28 special election. Bubier stepped down from the council for personal reasons, according to a letter she provided to the town. Her phone number was not active this week, and she couldn’t be reached for additional comment.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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