2017-02-03 / Front Page

Message to board: Don’t cut the flowers

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Selectmen in Kennebunk may weed away some public spending as they consider the coming municipal budget, but one thing they won’t uproot are the village flower beds

At a Jan. 10 debate on how best to allocate TIF (tax increment financing) funds in the coming year, some board members balked as continuing to pay $40,200 per year to plant flowers in Kennebunk’s three village centers. It’s an expense some, such as Selectman Deborah Beal, said has grown like kudzu from the $5,000 the town spent on the annual beautification project just a few years ago.

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

However, at the board’s Jan. 24 gathering, the final reading of the annual TIF allocation plan, selectmen noted the subsequent public response to their debate.

“The emails were overwhelming,” Beal said. “I don’t think we ever said we were cutting the flowers out of the budget. That was misinformation.”

“That’s what happens when Facebook gets involved,” Selectman Christopher Cluff said.

“Exactly,” Beal said. “And it really irritated me to get at least 20 emails saying, ‘Don’t cut the flowers.’ We never said we were cutting the flowers. We said, ‘What if?’ What if we cut a little bit of the budget? What if we cut 10 percent? Or, I said, what if we use more annuals than perennials? That’s all I said and we get this backlash.

“I appreciate the feedback, but I don’t appreciate that the wrong information was out there and caused such an uproar,” Beal said.

“I would recommend people watch the meetings online if they have a concern and not depend on what they hear third or fourth hand through social media, or even in the papers,” Selectman Shiloh Schulte said. “Sometimes, it’s not always accurate.”

“I just want to make clear that to everybody out there, especially when budget is coming up, we question everything,” Selectman Dan Boothby said. “We questioned the TIF, it was because we wanted more information. It doesn’t mean we’re against or not against it. We’re going to question a lot of different things. We didn’t have enough information last time. They’ve added more. I just want to know what our best bang for our buck is. When we vote, that’s when you’ll know for sure where we stand. So, don’t jump to conclusions.”

Beal said that, in regards to TIF funding, she was concerned, because selectmen have not always given in the thorough vetting they do the regular town budget, some taxpayers might think they are just “rubberstamping” recommendations of the economic development committee and the town manager, if they don’t ask questions.

“Next year I’d like to see more information sooner, so we don’t get to this point with questions,” Boothby said.

One of the items he had questioned at the Jan. 10 meeting was a $1,500 bump in funding for the annual Shakespeare in the Park program. A letter provided since that meeting, explaining the need, satisfied him of it, he said.

Selectman Blake Baldwin, meanwhile, said questions should be generated even before recommended spending figures are provided.

“Why wouldn’t we reach out to our existing committees and give them the charge to look at how the money is being spent for flowers, and say, ‘We could do better,’ or, ‘We’re doing as good as we can.’ Because, right now, if we get a number, we have no idea what it means.”

One thing that was cut from the TIF budget was $20,000 that would have been spent to have the Chamber of Commerce manage the town’s social media accounts and design marketing materials. However, at the Jan. 24 meeting, chamber director Laura Dolce said she wished to “respectfully withdraw” the proposal.

Dolce said the chamber would instead offer advice and support to a town employee tasked with managing the social media accounts.

In one other change, selectmen voted 5-2, with Beal and Karytko opposed, to continue paying 100 percent of the $59,000 annual salary for Economic Development Director Mat Eddy out of the TIF funds. Selectmen had considered moving half of Eddy’s pay into the regular town operating budget. According to board Chairman Dick Morin, there had been concern that Eddy’s salary should come out of the town’s operating budget, given that he is a salaried employee of the town.

“If you do that, it will impact the mil rate,” advised former selectman David Spofford. “With the TIF budget, the taxpayers will not be impacted by the amount of money you spend on these line items. My tax bill will be the same whether you spend $100,000 on flowers, or $10.”

In the end, selectmen voted 6-1, with Karytko opposed, to approve a new spending plan of $242,208 in TIF funds for the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

Other new items this year included $15,000, taken from the Lower Village TIF, for a beach parking study and $20,000, from the Downtown TIF to hire a part-time worker to help out with General Assistance administration.

Meanwhile, a $34,000 line item to go into a reserve to eventually provide a trolley bus service once the Amtrak railroad station comes to town, an expenditure previously questioned by selectmen, was left in the budget.

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

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