PI Council gets earful from public
A three-hour-long Presque Isle City Council meeting started with a 20-minute commentary and inquiry by retired farmer Danny Stewart, who’s concerned about a public vendor ordinance, taxes and other issues hanging over the community.
“You want to revitalize downtown and everything, and it seems like you’re trying to drive business away,” Stewart said, referring to the mobile vendor ordinance that the council was considering, with a seasonal fee of $100. “We’re hard workers up here in this area and we’re trying to make a living.”
Until last year, Stewart operated a farm store at his Route 1 potato farm and homestead at the southern edge of Presque Isle, and has sold his wood crafts and vegetables in towns and cities around northern and Downeast Maine — most of which don’t charge mobile vendors for permits, he said.
Stewart spoke along with fiddlehead sellers, mobile food vendors and other residents who showed up to share their concerns, including Frank Hallett of West Mountain Kettle Corn. They helped convince councilors to support a vendor ordinance that will require sellers to get a permit from the city, but without having to pay any fees. City Manager Martin Puckett will draft a fee-less version of the ordinance for the council to vote on at the next meeting.
Stewart’s comments ventured off the topic of the ordinance, as he acknowledged, but like others in attendance, he raised concerns about, broader interconnected issues affecting life in Presque Isle — the local economy, rising property taxes and funding for the new, soon-to-open community center.
“There’s a lot of questions here to be asked,” Stewart said, seven minutes into his comments.
“I went down to Riverside last night and there were 20 [truck] trailers sitting down there. Do you charge them?” he asked, bringing up the vendor ordinance’s initial permit fees.
“Why are we building something we can’t afford to operate?” he asked next, referring to the new community center and the ongoing discussions over fees that will be charged to users.
With Presque Isle’s taxes, Stewart said he’s joked in the past that he wishes his farm was located just a little more south, within the town of Westfield. In 1965, Stewart said his property taxes were around $440, or $3,340 in 2016 dollars, adjusted for inflation. Today, he said, they’re paying around $4,500, or 35 percent more in real dollars than they were 50 years ago.
During more than an hour of public comments, other residents echoed Stewart’s concerns about the value they’re getting from their local government, particularly in recreation programming.
Joan Anderson, a nurse and grandmother of six, remembers taking her children to free recreation programs, and lamented the loss of a free local swimming pool and the costs for children to participate in activities like baseball, which charges $25 per student.
“Where do you send your kids to go that’s free? There’s not very many left, but we need to have that, because these kids are on the streets.”
Kathy Hoppe, who volunteers with the Central Aroostook Kennel Club, brought to the council concerns from the group about possible increases in fees to use the new community center. The group has traditionally used the current Presque Isle recreation center for dog training sessions over six days in the spring and six in the fall. Once free, they started getting charged $20 per day session in recent years — and could have to pay $36 per day under the new community center’s proposed rates, which “would be an obstacle,” Hoppe said.
Members of the city council welcomed the public participation, vowed to consider their comments, and encouraged more residents to share their concerns and ideas. Public participation will be a little more convenient for some now thanks to a new digital camera that will broadcast meetings on the city’s website, as well as on Channel 16.
Following public comments, the council approved an ordinance long in the making that sets up rules, restrictions and safety standards for a medical marijuana dispensary to locate within Presque Isle.
The council also approved a bid to build a parking lot for the new Bishop’s Island baseball field, at a cost of $167,000, and approved rental fees for the new Riverside Park Public Market space, set at $50 per day, the same as the facility at Mantle Lake Park.