PITTSFIELD — The Pittsfield Community Theater, Maine’s only municipally owned and operated theater, could close or run on reduced hours this year after the Town Council moved Thursday to cut funding in half as part of last-minute reductions in the 2019 budget.

The town bought the theater in 1977, but it has been losing money for years, according to town officials who spoke at a more than six-hour council meeting that stretched Wednesday night into Thursday morning.

The theater’s projected expenses for 2019 were $145,366, while projected revenue was just $57,664. The theater operated on a similar budget in 2018, but brought in just $54,000 in revenue.

“It loses money every year and we keep pumping money into it, but we don’t fix the building,” At-large Councilor Debra Billings said. “I will not go sit in that theater. It’s disgusting and it operates at a loss every year, so why are we funding it?”

Late Wednesday the council moved to cut funding in half in 2019 as part of an overall reduction of $176,918 from the 2019 budget. Several councilors at the meeting spoke about closing the theater for at least one year, or even permanently, at the meeting, but Deputy Mayor Heather Donahue said in an interview Thursday no decisions have been made yet about operations.

“It’s just a funding decision,” she said. “There hasn’t been a decision yet on schedule or operations. We left that open so we can have some discussions on what will work best. We do have employees to think about.”

The cut was made during a contentious meeting at which several residents stood up and criticized a projected 8 percent to 10 percent tax increase adopted by the council as part of an overall $3.68 million budget adopted in December.

The budget was re-opened for another issue Wednesday night — a debate over whether to move $130,000 originally allocated for the Police Department to road repairs — and because of a technicality in the charter, Town Manager Kathryn Ruth said the council was required to finalize a budget after re-opening it Wednesday.

After hours of debate and discussion, the council arrived at a list of cuts and changes to include: cuts to the theater budget by $45,000; eliminating a new custodial position; cutting half the funding for a new police officer by starting the position July 1 and combining it with the animal control officer position; cutting $35,000 for a new backup generator at the town office; cutting half of the paving budget of $130,000 and moving the remaining half into debt service for bonding; and removing $5,000 each from the budgets of the transfer station, the Public Works Department and the library.

Councilors also added $22,000 for cleaning services to the budget to compensate for the removal of the custodian job, added $10,000 for building maintenance and decided to keep a $10,000 raise for police Chief Pete Bickmore, which had been the subject of debate.

Bickmore, who was hired in September 2017, said he is one of the lowest-paid police chiefs in Maine, with a salary of $52,000.

He also agreed to share a new administrative assistant for the department with the Town Office rather than get a full-time assistant just for the department.

“This is my first time going through the budget process, and I spent a lot of time trying to be fair,” Bickmore said. “There’s no fluff in my budget, no bells and whistles.”

Before Wednesday’s meeting, the approved Police Department budget included a 26 percent increase from 2018. And while several residents spoke Wednesday night about increasing taxes, many also said they felt the extra resources for the department were important.

“The comment we don’t have a crime problem but we have a road problem is inaccurate,” said Jason Tardy, superintendent of Pittsfield-based School Administrative District 53. “We have a road problem and we have a crime problem. Our kids are going home to houses where they don’t have food because their parents are giving up food to buy drugs. That’s a truth. It’s here.”

Some residents also spoke to the need to address the aging theater and its lack of revenue. “For the two years I used to be a part of the theater committee, I continued to say, ‘There has to be a better way,'” said resident and former Councilor Marie Manning. “We can’t just host a $5 coffee event and then hope we’ll have $1 million to repair the building.”

The theater, located at 137 Main St., first opened as Leger’s Theater in 1915. Maine National Bank and Cianbro Corp. purchased it in 1975 and donated it to a newly formed nonprofit group, the Pittsfield Community Theater Association, which eventually sold it to the town in 1977.

Donna Dunphy, the theater’s full-time director, did not respond to a phone message left at the theater or an email Thursday.

In January 2018, after the theater’s longtime projectionist died in a fire in Skowhegan, she told the Morning Sentinel the theater employed five people.

Councilors left the future of the venue up in the air and said it is something that will be revisited. Funding for 2019 could be cut off in July, or the hours could be reduced to keep the theater open year-round but on fewer days.

“I agree we should close the theater for one year, but we will get together and talk about what happens,” Councilor Caleb Curtis said. “I don’t want it to become this mess in the middle of town. I don’t want to vote to just cut it and then walk away from it. We still need to deal with it.”

Donahue suggested the town still could have a community theater but should look at different venues.

“It doesn’t have to be in that building,” she said. “A lot of the issues around the theater are centered around the building it’s in. Yes, it’s a historic building, and yes, it has a long history in the town; but I’ve heard it said before not every historic building is worth being saved.”

Showings at the theater — which cost just $5 for general admission — are held in the evenings Monday through Saturday and on Sunday afternoons.

On Thursday, Theresa Butler stood outside, checking the theater schedule that was posted and reading it over the phone to her 16-year-old son.

“He was getting all excited,” she said, adding the theater is the “only thing they have going in town that parents bring their children to.”

“If this places closes down, my son is going to be pretty much in tears.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.