2017-01-20 / Front Page

Board in a tiff over TIFs

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — What was billed on the agenda for the Jan. 10 meeting of the Kennebunk Board of Selectmen as a five to 10 minute discussion on how to allocate TIF funds in the coming budget year, became instead an hour-long debate on the vision and values of the town as a whole.

Along the way, some board members balked as continuing to pay more than $40,000 per year to plant flowers in Kennebunk’s three village centers, while some also turned up their noses at a new proposal — the pay the Chamber of Commerce $20,000 per year to manage the town’s social media accounts.

Selectmen also disagreed on things that had seemed previously settled: Moving the salary of Economic Development Director Mat Eddy out of the TIF funds and into the town’s annual operating budget, as well as funding operation of a public trolley bus service.

In the end, however, selectmen made no edits, agreeing to review the allocations again at their Jan. 24 meeting, during a second reading and anticipated final vote.

A TIF (tax increment financing) agreement allows a town to take tax revenue realized from new development and return some of it to the property owner — this incentivizing it to undertake the construction — while directing the rest to specific infrastructure needs, while also sheltering updated property values from state assessments.

For example, in general, a developer might get back part of property taxes paid on a new hotel, helping to fund its construction, while the town might use it’s share to make street improvements, or fire and police upgrades, necessitated by the new business. Meanwhile, things like the town’s state subsidy for public education, which might otherwise decline because of higher property values, continue to get calculated on the assessments in place before the new building came along.

Money generated by TIFs can also be used by towns to foster additional economic development, and that was the topic of the Jan. 10 meeting.

Kennebunk has TIF districts centered around its three villages — Main Street, Lower Village, and West Kennebunk. The plan presented by Eddy, as agreed to by the town’s economic development committee, calls for spending $157,908 in TIF money on the downtown area for the fiscal year to start July 1, along with $22,300 on Lower Village and $1,500 in West Kennebunk, for a total of $181,708.

Most of the funding lines remained the same from the current fiscal year, although the new plan does call on a boost in funding for the annual Shakespeare in the Park program from $3,500 to $5,000.

Social media

However, it was the new plan to outsource social media posting to the chamber for $20,000 that seemed to take some selectmen aback, although chamber director Laura Dolce said her two-page proposal includes creation of event flyers and other promotional materials, in addition to managing Facebook posts and creating other online accounts.

“So, it’s not strictly just the social media,” she said, stressing the need for the town to market itself in ways that reach younger residents.

“I think we have the cart before the horse a little bit here. I’m not quite ready to sign off on this,” Selectmen Christopher Cluff said.

“I wonder, what’s the value here? I don’t want to just throw some money at it and let’s see what happens,” Selectmen Ed Karytko agreed.

“I don’t see at this time the value in it. Social media is not the place I go to to find out what’s going on,” said Selectman Deborah Beal, admitting she didn’t even know the town had a Facebook page.

Beal also noted the town’s failed experiment with creating a smart phone app to publicize events and public meetings.

“I can’t even remember the last time I used that. To me, that was wasted money,” she said. “I’d rather see us focus on the website than spend all this money on Faceook posts.”

Town Manager Michael Pardue said work on a new website is underway, with a new page set to debut in February.

He also said town hall is two weeks into an eight-week “proof-of-concept” experiment in dedicating one employee to maintaining the town’s Facebook page. That specialized work will end come tax time, Pardue said, when that person’s services will be needed once again in the revenue office.

Still, Pardue said, social media is a 21st century need Kennebunk will have to meet.

“I couldn’t emphasize enough, we are in a competitive marketplace as a community,” he said. “We are trying to attract residents, businesses, employees. We are trying desperately to profile and highlight Kennebunk, and what we are doing here. This is a way of outreach to our residents, and to the entire world. I think this is the way that’s done now. [Facebook] is what I turn to.”

“And at the opposite end of the spectrum, I don’t even look at it,” Karytko said.

Still other selectmen were on board with the idea.

“I do believe social media is absolutely necessary for us to better communicate with younger people in our community,” Selectman Blake Baldwin said. “The fact that many of us don’t use it is not the acid test in my view.”

Still, Baldwin wondered how comments would be moderated to avoid libel implications while preserving first amendment rights, especially if the job of maintaining the page falls to someone other than a town employee.

But there were other concerns as well, as noted by audience member John Costin.

“I had hoped that with all the transitions the town is going through right now, we would get back to following some of our rules,” he said. “We have a purchasing policy. That policy requires us to go out to bid for things that are not sole source, which are not from a unique provider. Now, I’m no expert, but I’d have to say nothing represents widespread knowhow and democratized knowledge as much as social media. I’m sure the chamber very capable, but if we’re going to spend $20,000, let’s develop a vision of what we as a town want to see out of this and put it out there as an RFP (request for proposal) to see who can provide it.”

Asked by Costin if any other firms were contacted, Eddy said, “No, we went and talked directly to the chamber from the start, because we felt they had the skill set and the knowledge of the community we felt would be a good fit for us.”

“I think it’s very possible the chamber would come forward with the best bid, but putting on my budget board hat for a minute here, $20,000 because somebody went and talked to somebody — no, that doesn’t fly.”

Still, Dolce defended the proposal, saying that the way town’s Faceook page is now being maintained, the site’s algorithms are actually working against the networking attempt.

“Lately, there’s been more posting going on, but I think it’s the wrong kind of posting,” she said, noting Facebook’s preference for photos and videos when allowing posts to appear in the timelines of friends and followers, and it’s relative disapproval of links to websites outside of Facebook, which Dolce said, “get squashed.”

“It’s a really big lost opportunity right now. Just as wouldn’t send 1,000 letters, take 100 and put them in the mailbox and take 900 and throw them on the lawn of town hall and hope that people find them, it’s the same way with social media,” Dolce said.

Flowers

Meanwhile, Dolce also rose to the defense of summer floral arrangements, a $43,000 expense in the three villages, combined.

The number one question we get [at the chamber] is, ‘Where’s the Bush compound,’” she said. “But I can tell you the number one comment we get is, ‘Look at these flowers. Who does your flowers? Where can I get those flowers?’ So, other towns spend tens of thousands of dollars marketing their communities, and not just to tourists, but to potential residents, people who want to retire here, and young families who might like to move here, who are making decisions between our town and maybe a Scarborough, or a Cape Elizabeth, or maybe even a Wells. So, those flowers are doing a lot more in terms of economic development that you might realize.”

Dolce also claimed that, in other towns that have made investments in urban flora, “they have made a 60 percent difference in businesses downtown.”

“When you look at before we did the flowers and before we did the downtown improvements, we had empty storefronts,” she said. “We don’t have empty storefronts now. We have people come into our office looking for space, and we just don’t have it anymore. That is the one thing we are doing that is really selling ourselves.”

But Beal was dubious.

“If I am going to move, I am not going to make my decision based on flowers,” she said. “I am going to look at the mil rate and I am going to look at the school system, if I have kids.”

And, while she agreed Kennebunk streetside floral arrangements are “absolutely beautiful,” she suggested “cutting corners” by filling in with greenery, and using more annuals than perennials.

“I’d like to see something hardy that can come back year after year so we can curb a little bt of this stuff,” she said. “I mean, when I started on the board eight years ago, we spent $5,000 on this, and we’re over $40,000 now.”

“I understand it’s our brand and whatever, and there’s no question they look great,” Karytko said, “but the bottom line is, it’s coming out of my pocket.”

“If we are to assume flowers are our branding in this town, we’re in trouble,” said local developer Stephen Bowley, from the audience.

Bowley they engaged former town manager Barry Tibbetts, now working as a consultant to Pardue, over the true cost of the flowers. While TIF funding may cover the cost of flowers — and another audience member said the town overspends by buying annuals in planters, setting the whole thing in the ground, instead of flats — Bowley questioned the cost in manpower and vehicle use.

“There’s no cost associated with the truck, it’s just for the union person,” Tibbetts said.

“There is a cost associated with that truck per mile,” Bowley corrected.

“Yeah, but what I’m telling you is that’s not in the budget,” said Tibbetts.

“Well, that’s my point,” Bowley replied.

Trolley cars

Selectman Dan Boothby questioned the need to spend $34,000 for a trolley car service from TIF funds, as the town has for the last several years, but Pardue said the town is all but locked in to that eventual purchase.

“That’s a predicate for the Downeaster coming,” he said. “We have to have public transportation in order for them to come.”

However, Beal and Cluff and Chairman Dick Morin all noted that Kennebunk voters have rejected paying for a trolley when presented to them as a stand-alone item on the annual town meeting warrant.

“And that was at $16,000,” Beal said. “Now, it’s at $34,000.”

“Three times it went to town meeting and got rejected, and that’s when we buried it in the TIF,” Cluff said.

However, others on the board said the money has to come from somewhere, if certain goals are to be met.

“The question is, do we want the Downeaster to stop in Kennebunk or not,” Blake said.

“And that’s the thing about the TIF, this is our decision, just the selectmen, not the voters,” Boothby said. “That’s the biggest flaw in the TIF.”

Strategic planning

However, the flaw others saw in the TIF deals is the constant wrangling selectmen do over TIFs, to no apparent end.

“We have had these kinds of discussions over and over and over again, and, oddly enough, it has centered on the flowers over and over and over again,” Morin said. “Our challenge is to create a budget that makes living here affordable and to make the community attractive. One of the frustrations is, here we are, a month before we start a budget process, and we’re one more time having this discussion, and we’re going to come back in two weeks and expect to render a decision, and I don’t think that’s a fair way to do business.”

Rather than cutting back to one meeting per month during the summer, selectmen should have held the course and scheduled time for the TIF debate then, Morin suggested.

“I don’t know, but I’m frustrated because this is the seventh discussion I’ve had on this topic since I’ve been on the board,” he said.

At one point, in addition to sparring over whether Eddy’s salary is best (or even legally) paid out of TIF funds, selectmen also considered whether to cut funding this year for the $4,250 in annual funding for the town’s quasi-municipal economic development commission, given that it has built up a “war chest” of about $50,000 for so-called microloans to area businesses, but has not lent any in several years, due to what EDC chairman Robert Georgitis deemed low demand.

“We only had a couple of inquiries last year, and nothing that advanced to the loan stage,” he said.

But debate stalled on the assertion of Baldwin that the entire discussion “is a symptom of an illness we have in this community.”

“That illness is that we don’t have a strategic vision about what it is we want to be when we grow up,” he said. “We have not agreed on what this community is. Eventually, we are going to have to come together as a board on a strategic vision, and it’s not about flowers, necessarily. The flowers are just a symptom of the fact we don’t agree on what kind of community we want to be.”

“I agree,” said Karytko. “What direction as a town do we want to go in? Do we want to be an industrial-commercial mecca, or do we want to be a bedroom community? We have to be able to answer that question in order to make these decisions.”

Meanwhile, Morin said selectmen are essentially fighting blind.

“We have 14 people in the audience tonight, which is an outstanding crowd for most decisions that are made in this building,” he said. “Usually we have eight or nine people who care enough to come and offer us their insights and their opinions, and 10,990 who sit at home and say, ‘Why didn’t you do that?’ I challenge those people to come out and be heard because, clearly, we haven’t been able to get past square one.”

“It’s like trying to change the tires on a car as it travelling 70 mph down the turnpike,” Baldwin said. “But, at some point, we’ve got to figure this out.”

Asked if he had any suggestions on how best to act, considering that almost anything selectmen do is sure to anger some interest group, Pardue did not miss a beat.

“Never put you head in the lion’s mouth,” was his only advice.

Eddy said he would compile answers to the many questions selectmen raised and provide them prior to the Jan. 24 meeting.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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