DEER ISLE — The Deer Isle and Stonington select boards met Sept. 28 at the Deer Isle town office to talk about the future of the island, what planning the towns could do together and what resources might be shared.
The impending closure of Island Nursing Home (INH) due to staffing issues as well as the bankruptcy filing of Island Employees Cooperative (IEC), which owns two grocery stores and a variety store on Deer Isle, prompted the gathering.
Selectmen shared worries about the island no longer having a nursing home and aired frustration with the facility’s current management.
“I think they should reach out to some past employees and find out ‘why did you quit?’” Deer Isle Select Board member Joe Brown said. “Your business is only as good as the people you have working for you.”
“I did two or three turns on the board for the nursing home,” Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings said. “I really enjoyed it. There wasn’t anything I thought I couldn’t discuss with the general public.”
There was never any secrecy, Billings said. Unless it was a patient issue or a lawsuit, everything was able to be discussed.
“I don’t know where the cloak and dagger thing came from,” Billings said. “It certainly wasn’t there when I was on the board. I echo what Joe [Brown] said. We need to have a nursing home of some shape or size back again.”
“Almost 100 percent of the people I talked to would go back,” said Deer Isle Select Board Chairman Ron Eaton. “It’s the management. Management is the main reason for the lack of workers.”
Billings said municipalities need to know if a community resource, such as a nursing home or an ambulance service, is having problems before it turns into a crisis.
Population is an issue for the area.
“Some of this long-range visioning we have to figure out by chowdering down the numbers,” Billings said. “We’ve got an awful lot of people retiring out. Just like this old cat, I’m a few years away and I plan to retire.”
“The sheer volume of people you need to keep a community up — that’s a problem,” Billings said.
Maine has the oldest population in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the nation’s birthrate dropped again in 2020, down 4 percent from 2019 to reach another record low, according to the Vital Statistics Rapid Release, a report issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC stated that birthrate “has generally been below replacement,” the level at which a given generation can exactly replace itself, since 1971.
Island school enrollment has been declining for years, leading Deer Isle and Stonington taxpayers to fund one of the highest per-student costs in the state for educating K-12 students, according to statistics from the Maine Department of Education.
However, if the island could lure new year-round residents, where would they live? There wasn’t sufficient housing on the island for visiting nurses at INH, according to INH staff.
Brown said he left the island early one morning for an appointment and faced a steady stream of traffic coming onto the island. He said that tells him people are commuting from elsewhere to work on Deer Isle.
“The numbers game is a double-edged sword,” said Ben Pitts, who is the operations director for Island Employees Cooperative.
“I have 15 to 17 people who are absolute rock-solid core staff,” Pitts said. “They are hard-working, team players and love their jobs. The problem is I need about 50 more of them. This community doesn’t produce the quality and quantity of employees needed to fill all these holes.”
Pitts noted that he is the second or third highest paid employee at IEC and he can’t afford to buy a house on the island.
Land is an issue for housing, Brown said. “You can build a house but you’ve got to find the property.”
Stonington Selectman Travis Fifield agreed.
“We could buy campers, we could buy trailers, but there’s still no place to put them,” he said.
Stonington Select Board member John Steed suggested both towns enact ordinances to “curb Airbnbs and summer rentals. Now it’s just about anything someone’s not using, they put it on Airbnb and get a couple hundred dollars a night. We can propose laws about it and let the voters decide. I think it might put some pressure to create some more year-round housing stock.”
“I think we really need to know — is seasonal housing a necessity?” asked Stonington Select Board member Evelyn Duncan. “Is there a need for housing for employees every year for people who are going to be working here during the peak season when we need people to work? I think we need to find out if we do need it.”
The group closed the meeting by discussing the sharing of resources.
“I think there is a tremendous amount we could do to help the island if we work together,” said Duncan. “I’m hoping we pool whatever resources we think we could add to the pot. We could either be more efficient with or combine information for that could maybe lead somewhere.”
Deer Isle Select Board member Peter Perez said “it’s like the issue of trying to maintain two fire departments, transfer stations and road crews.”
“We’re eventually going to be forced into it with the fire department when we have to hire 24-hour people,” he said.
“We are one island, really,” said Stonington Select Board member John Robbins. “Half of my family is in Deer Isle.”