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Houlton votes to approve membership on service centers coalition

HOULTON, Maine — After a lengthy discussion on Monday evening, councilors approved a proposal to appoint Town Manager William D. MacDonald to serve as the community’s representative to the Maine Service Centers Coalition.

That decision came three weeks after councilors tabled a request for participation in the group saying they needed more information on the organization first.

On Monday evening, MacDonald and Councilor Sue Tortello provided more data about the group.

MacDonald, who has had previous experience with the coalition, said that he wanted to see the town stick with the Maine Service Centers Coalition. The town has been a member since 2001.

‘This is something I’d like us to participate in,” said MacDonald. “I’d like us to have it as a tool.”

MacDonald noted that coalition members have lobbied before the Legislature on behalf of small towns like Houlton that are facing daunting issues in Augusta, such as statewide aid for education. In 2004, Maine voters approved a referendum requiring that the state fund 55 percent of education costs to school districts. During the next school year, the state will pay slightly less than half, 49.6 percent, of traditional school costs, MacDonald said. He also said that the state is not giving communities the full 5 percent of funding as called for in the revenue sharing law.

MacDonald said that besides himself, Martin Puckett, city manager of Presque Isle, also is an Aroostook County member of the coalition. It costs $700 annually to participate in the organization, which the town manager said he felt was a fair price for the coalition’s efforts. He said that his participation involves little travel, since the chairman of the organization is in Augusta and does much of the advocating from there.

“I believe it is important to participate, especially since the state goes into its biennial budget cycle next year,” he said. “Maybe if we were getting our full education and revenue sharing funding, it wouldn’t be as important to take part.”

Tortello said that she was slightly more skeptical that the town should be spending the taxpayers’ money on membership.

“I believe the reason that the coalition exists is noble,” she said, but added that she felt that it duplicated the services of the Maine Municipal Association. She also said that it was difficult to find information on the group, since they did not have a website and she could not find the minutes of the annual meeting that they were supposed to hold.

“They do have a lobbyist … in the eleven bills in which the lobbyist for the Maine Service Centers Coalition represented us this year, none were specific to service center communities. These eleven bills also were things we were represented on by the Maine Municipal Association. I am not saying they are taking advantage of our money, but I am saying its a redundancy of services.”

Councilor Hal Britton noted that the town already has state representatives in Augusta to serve as advocates, as well as the Maine Municipal Association.

MacDonald said that the coalition allowed for a positive dialogue with other legislators from across the state, as well as the region’s own.

“It is important when it comes to revenue sharing and education funding sharing,” he said. “It gives us a constructive dialogue statewide.”

Tortello noted that the town needed to pay its dues to the organization by June. She said that she could consider a compromise in paying it, looking at their continuing representation and then considering whether to fund the group again when they put together next year’s municipal budget.

In the end, the measure passed 4-2, with Britton and Raymond Jay voting against the measure.

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