HOULTON, Maine — Even though privately raised funds would pay for the cost of restrooms in Riverfront Park, town councilors on Tuesday evening shot down a request for permission to build them because the town would have to foot the bill for maintenance.
In a divided 3-2 vote, the councilors decided that the Riverfront Committee would have to put the brakes on its latest project for the park. The c ommittee created the downtown park, which centers on Gateway Crossing, a pedestrian footbridge that stretches from the North Street Bridge across the Meduxnekeag River.
“I was disappointed,” Bob Anderson, chairman of the Riverfront Committee, said last week. The all-volunteer group was formed more than a decade ago to transform the riverfront area, which was mostly home to a tangle of trees, weeds and trash, into Riverfront Park. “But we are not giving up. The committee is meeting soon to discuss our next steps and I believe we will bring this back to the council.”
Committee members worked for five years to clean up the park area and raise the $1 million needed to build the 187-foot footbridge. Members also secured grants and donations to create a lighted park furnished with picnic tables and other amenities, a groomed fitness trail and storyboards lining the bridge and walking path depicting the history of the town and other facts about the community.
Committee members then pitched the bathroom idea to the council more than two years ago. The group believes that restrooms are needed in the area for shoppers and visitors.
Portable toilets have been used in the park in the past few years. Town Manager Butch Asselin said it would cost between $6,000 and $10,000 a year for maintenance for permanent restrooms, and Police Chief Joe McKenna said officers would be available to secure the restrooms each evening.
During Tuesday’s meeting, a bulk of the time was spent discussing whether or not to eliminate the dispatching services provided through the Houlton Police Department. A report stated that substantial savings over several years could be found if councilors adopted the proposal, but in the end, the town voted not to consolidate dispatching services.
Councilor John White said that the timing of the restroom request, in light of the dispatching issue and the council’s efforts to find budget savings, was “not good.”
“This is a ‘want’ and not a ‘need,’” he said about the restrooms, adding that the town still did not know what the full cost of maintaining the facilities each year would be.
Councilor Phil Cloney agreed.
“I would rather work on public safety,” he said.
Anderson said he was not surprised that the restroom proposal was rejected after the council decided not to eliminate the dispatching services.
Chief McKenna said Thursday that vandalism was rampant in the park this past summer, and it was mostly acts committed by youths. They have broken street lights by the Highland Avenue bridge, strewn trash around, carved names and obscenities into the wooden benches, and one youth was charged with criminal mischief after she attempted to burn off disparaging remarks about her from the roof of the gazebo that houses the picnic tables.
“Some of the kids down in the park told us that they mostly hung out down there to take advantage of the free WiFi,” said McKenna. “So we had the WiFi shut off for two weeks. The vandalism ceased.”
Anderson said that the committee would not let a few vandals stop them from building a park for people to enjoy.
“We have also found that the more activity and the more things there are for people to do down there, the less vandalism there is,” he said. “But we don’t pay too much attention to vandals. We aren’t going to let a few vandals spoil things for everyone.”