Andy Cook, a Rome resident and the town’s volunteer representative to FirstPark’s General Assembly, is seen Wednesday at his home. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Rome residents overwhelmingly want out of FirstPark based on unofficial results from Tuesday’s election, but legal counsel for the regional business park is of the opinion they cannot leave.

Of the 112 Rome residents to vote on a referendum question about withdrawing from FirstPark — officially known as the Kennebec Regional Development Authority — 97 voted to pull out of FirstPark, 12 voted to stay and three left their ballots blank.

“The people of Rome have reconfirmed now their desire to leave FirstPark,” said Andy Cook, a Rome resident and the town’s volunteer representative to FirstPark’s General Assembly. “All the people of Rome want is a choice, the opportunity to make a choice every year.”

During a public hearing in April, Cook said he would like to see the town vote on FirstPark every year.

Established in 1998 through a bill passed by the state Legislature, the Kennebec Regional Development Authority and the 285-acre FirstPark business park in Oakland is supported by 24 member municipalities. Rome is angling to be the first town to withdraw, although communities expressed worry about the investment from time to time.

FirstPark’s anchor tenant is a T-Mobile call center, and the organization posted a strong 2020. Dr. Anna O’Keefe recently announced she is building a new dental practice at the business park off Kennedy Memorial Drive.

FirstPark President Steve Monsulick of Readfield sent an email Tuesday morning to the entire FirstPark General Assembly, which is made up of one or two representatives from each of the 24 towns. Monsulick described the notice as “what we hope will be seen as an unbiased attempt to explain the restrictions under which the Authority is governed.” It contained a three-page written response of legal counsel regarding municipalities wishing to withdraw.

Rome officials believe the town can withdraw effective July 1, 2022, the first full fiscal year that the park’s income is sufficient to pay the debt and expenses of the authority. FirstPark paid off its debt in November. Towns are still being assessed for this year, but at an approximately 33% lower rate, Farmingdale’s General Assembly representative and attorney Craig Nelson said in April.

Rome’s 2020-21 assessment was $29,422. Rome voters approved up to $7,500 at its March Town Meeting to retain legal counsel during this process. Since joining FirstPark, Rome has lost $336,071 according to a report published by Cook in Rome’s annual town report.

They also voted 178-75 in favor of withdrawing from the authority then, but residents had to vote again Tuesday.

The sign to the T-Mobile call center at FirstPark in Oakland. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“Our next step is to send that response to our lawyer and get a legal opinion from our lawyer,” Rome First Selectmen Paul Anderson said. “We need to get the legal opinion of (Sally Daggett of Jensen Baird in Portland) and her take on their lawyer’s opinion.”

Cook said he believes the state Legislature was not set up to make the founding towns’ members of the authority forever.

“For sure, the financial structure is set up as a trap to prevent any town from ever leaving,” Cook said. “I’m sure while it may have been the intent from some of the founders to create a trap, it was certainly not the intent of the Legislature. … We will persist, and I’m confident we will prevail.”

FirstPark Executive Director Jim Dinkle had no comment on the matter when contacted Wednesday, pointing instead to the legal opinion and General Assembly. Monsulick did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

State Rep. Daniel Newman, who represents Rome, said he did not have any details on the situation. State Sen. Bradlee Farrin, who also represents the town, said he was aware of the issue but is not heavily involved.

Written by attorney James N. Katsiaficas of Portland-based Perkins Thompson, the May 3 legal response on behalf of the authority stated that only one of the two conditions for withdrawal has been met. There is no more indebtedness, but sufficiency of income “may be an impediment to withdrawal becoming effective,” Katsiaficas wrote.

“If there is any assessment in any fiscal year, then, it is because the Authority’s income is not sufficient to pay the Authority’s expenses, and so that the fiscal year will not permit withdrawal to become effective on the following July 1,” Katsiaficas wrote.

The 24 municipalities behind FirstPark are Anson, Benton, Canaan, China, Clinton, Cornville, Fairfield, Farmingdale, Gardiner, Hartland, Manchester, Norridgewock, Oakland, Palmyra, Pittsfield, Readfield, Rome, Sidney, Smithfield, Solon, Starks, St. Albans, Waterville and Winslow.

Also of note, China voters voted 135-138, with five blank ballots, against raising and appropriating $26,471 for FirstPark expenses during the town’s annual business meeting referendum election.

Town Manager Becky Hapgood noted that because the FirstPark ballot article was rejected but Article 26 passed, the town will instead budget last year’s amount of $39,000 but only pay the assessment of $25,471.

“We will not be spending $39,000,” Hapgood said. “We will continue to investigate the town’s separation from FirstPark.”

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