ELLSWORTH — Should the city cap salaries for municipal employees or potentially cut them to save money? Expand Hancock County Technical Center (HCTC)? Enter into a partnership to construct a solar array?
Candidates vying for seats on the City Council and School Board weighed in on those questions and others at a forum at the former J&B Atlantic building on Tuesday evening hosted by the Heart of Ellsworth, the League of Women Voters and The Ellsworth American.
The question on capping or cutting salaries drew perhaps one of the most impassioned answers from candidate Marc Blanchette, an incumbent who chairs the council.
“No and no,” said Blanchette. “We have 93 of the best damned employees working for the city of Ellsworth that we could find.”
“If you want Ellsworth to turn away from the development,” Blanchette continued, “then sure, we can cut the salaries, we can cut the insurance, we can cut the benefits. Those people are going to find better-paying jobs.”
But on that question, Blanchette was the odd man out. The rest of the candidates said they would be in favor of at least looking into salary caps for municipal employees.
“I’ve been capped for the last three years in my job in the private sector,” said Robert Miller. “I don’t see a problem with looking at it and studying it.”
Gene Lyons agreed.
“Some of the salaries I’ve seen for the city employees seem like far more than they should ever get.”
The question of whether the city should look into solar was far less contentious, with all candidates in favor.
“Unequivocally yes,” said Edward Mathias Kamin III.
“I would say go for it,” said Michelle Kaplan, pointing to the success of the town of Madison, which partnered with Ohio-based IGS Solar to buy electricity from the company at 7.99 cents per kilowatt hour. (Emera Maine’s residential service rates in the Bangor Hydro District are 10.16 cents per kilowatt hour this year).
School Board candidates and council candidates both weighed in on the question of whether HCTC should be rebuilt or expanded.
Both School Board candidates (there are two School Board seats open) were supportive, although incumbent Paul Markosian, who has been involved in discussions about the project, cautioned that it was in the very early stages.
“Once that feasibility study takes place and is completed we’ll have a better idea,” said Markosian, referring to plans a steering committee has to solicit for a study to determine the parameters of the project.
“It won’t be until quite a ways after that until we’ll know.”
School Board candidate Jennifer Alexander said she was fully supportive of the idea, adding that she and her husband own an auto body shop and have considered the possibility of expanding, except: “We couldn’t even begin to think about doing something like that without having the people.”
“We have a huge need in the area” for skilled workers, Alexander said.
Council candidates were largely in favor of the idea, although Blanchette said he would “really would have to see the details” before making any decision.
Candidate Lyons drew a few nervous laughs and disapproving tuts when he said he favored expanding the school and joked that courses in home economics were needed.
“I haven’t had a wife that’s a good cook in awhile,” he said.
In responding to a question on what municipal services candidates would cut to lower taxes, most were vague on what aspects of the budget might come under the knife.
“If you’re talking about cutting taxes, my first question is what do you want to cut off the municipal side and what do you want to cut off the school?” Blanchette asked.
Markosian said the board has worked closely with the council, pointing out that the budget is voted on by the board, then the council, then the citizens at a referendum.
“I don’t want to see taxes rise,” said Markosian, “but investment in education pays dividends in so many other ways,” including helping keep property values up.
Kamin echoed what Markosian said earlier in the evening, that it’s important the state pay 55 percent of the costs of education, a level mandated by voters at referendum that has never been reached.
“That’s very important that the state does that,” said Kamin. But, he continued, there are ways to increase revenue without making cuts. The brewer suggested a possible sales tax of 0.5 percent. “We can use those monies to better improve the city.”
Miller agreed that the city should try to create more revenue streams. “Nobody wants taxes to go up,” he said. “There are other ways we can increase revenue and not increase our taxes.”
A question on how to fund the Ellsworth Public Library, which has been discussed in various city forums in recent months, drew support for the quasi-municipal entity but few solutions.
Kaplan suggested an e-commerce site with subscription services as a possible way to boost revenue, or partnering with the University of Maine at Machias or College of the Atlantic to “come together to try and preserve a historic building that’s the pride of Ellsworth.”
On the School Board side, candidates were also asked how the city should attract and retain quality teachers. Both cited compensation and a welcoming supportive culture as key.
“We do need to consider class size being one of the things that could deter somebody from our city,” said Alexander, adding that the department should try and keep sizes manageable.
Both candidates also praised the state’s decision to mandate starting teacher salaries at $40,000 (Ellsworth starts teachers at $36,500, said Markosian).
“It takes the burden off of local communities to close that gap because it’s a mandate,” said Markosian.
Several dozen residents attended the 90-minute event, which wrapped up around 7:30 p.m.