ELLSWORTH — City councilors last week unanimously approved a request from officials to borrow $3.5 million for a variety of equipment and infrastructure projects, albeit with some protest from at least one resident.
“Most of these are projects that have to get done,” said Councilor Gary Fortier, “some of them by federal and state mandate.”
Fortier congratulated staff and the Capital Improvements Committee on their work to put together a bond package rather than adding the items to the budget, which could raise taxes significantly.
“Why not amortize that debt service over the long term instead of kicking the taxpayer now,” he said.
There are a few big-ticket items on the horizon, including a rescue truck for the Fire Department to replace Truck No. 5, which was built in 2001.
“It’s seeing a lot of wear and tear and they’re seeing an increase in mechanical issues,” said Deputy City Manager Tammy Mote, who presented the items to councilors. A replacement would cost roughly $550,000.
The city also needs two new plow trucks, to replace ones built in 2000 and 2009 (estimated cost: $344,000), along with a back sweeper (the current one can barely climb hills, said Mote) projected to cost $235,750 and $185,000 for a vacuum truck to help maintain sewer lines.
“A lot of these projects were projects that had been put in the budget then they kept getting kicked down the road and kicked down the road,” Mote said.
“We came to a point where we don’t have lots of equipment; we don’t have any other choice but to purchase these now,” she continued.
“They were getting cut from the budget in order to try to keep the taxes down. That’s kind of why we’re where we’re at.”
On the project side, the largest chunk of funding ($1.3 million) would go toward improvements at the Water Street pump station, which handles two-thirds of the wastewater flow in the city, Mote said.
The station is “at capacity and experiencing seasonal overflows into the river due to the increasing development pressure,” Mote said. The city did receive a $500,000 grant for the project to offset some of the costs, she added.
Another $460,000 would go toward upgrading the Branch Lake Dam ($175,000) and acquiring radio meter reading equipment ($250,000).
The dam, Mote said, “has some holes” as well as inadequate safety systems, and the radio meter reading program, which would be rolled out over several years, “would allow the crew to do a drive-by collecting [water] meter readings.”
Another radio-related project is also on the list: $125,000 to update the radio communications infrastructure used by the city’s emergency responders.
“There are currently buildings within the city,” said Mote, “including schools and the hospital, that you’re unable to communicate on the radio.”
But while councilors were for the plan to pay for the improvements using a bond anticipation note, the public wasn’t entirely on board.
“Bonding should be kept to major projects, capital projects and not vehicles and pieces of equipment,” said resident Stephen Shea during a public comment period.
“I think what it ends up doing is it hides the impact from the taxpayer. It allows for higher tax expenditures for other things. The people think ‘well, taxes didn’t go up much,’ but in the long run, they do.”
But Councilor Dale Hamilton disagreed.
“I see this as exactly the opposite,” Hamilton said. “I see this as keeping taxes in check.”
If a plow truck breaks, Hamilton said, the city would either have to lease one or buy one last minute, both costly ventures.
“And that’s going to raise taxes. I think that the approach in terms of trying to do these things more planfully and address them long term makes a lot more sense than trying to do it year-to-year. We’ll end up in the same place year after year and not make any progress.”
The vote Oct. 21 was just the authorization to borrow the money, Mote pointed out.
“Each department head will be coming back to the council for approval for their project or their piece of equipment,” she said.