CARIBOU, Maine – Caribou city councilors are once again tackling a blighted downtown property, this time one located in the heart of that district.
The home at 273 Sweden Street burned in a fire on January 25, the same day that another fire destroyed a structure at 7 Water Street and displaced over a dozen apartment tenants. The remains of the Sweden Street home have been vacant since then. Passersby can see the burned-out roof of both the home and adjacent garage, a vehicle and lawn maintenance equipment parked near the road.
Councilors set a public hearing for their January 22 meeting to determine if 273 Sweden Street is a dangerous property. If councilors declare it dangerous, the property owners Ashley Thomas and Michael Quimby will have 30 days to present the city with a plan for cleaning the property.
In February, the city sent Thomas and Quimby a notice stating that their property was now condemned, said City Manager Penny Thompson. City staff followed up with another notice of condemnation in April; a notice of violation, legal notice and order for corrective action in September; and a letter to Thomas and Quimby in October, to which they never responded.
The January public hearing will be open to any residents wishing to speak about 273 Sweden Street. Thomas and Quimby will be notified prior to that date, Thompson said.
Thomas and Quimby did not attend the council meeting Monday and were not immediately available for comment.
Councilors had been prepared to vote on clean-up bids for another blighted property, 15 Prospect Street. But a “miscommunication” led to the bid advertisement not being published in the Aroostook Republican before the initial November 24 deadline, Thompson said.
That ad will now be placed in the November 29 edition of Aroostook Republican, with a new deadline of Thursday, Dec. 7. The council will vote on bids December 11.
Thompson said that officials from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services hope to visit 15 Prospect Street and meet with the owner, John Barretto. Barretto is still living in his garage, prompting DHHS officials to explore a better living situation for him.
RSU 39 Superintendent Jane McCall and Business Manager Mark Bouchard updated councilors on the school district’s initial budget conversations for the 2024-2025 fiscal year. The finance committee has begun meeting bi-monthly and much earlier than usual to begin preparing for several budget-related changes.
Since the pandemic, the district had been receiving federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds. RSU 39 must spend the remainder of their third and final ESSER grant before September 2024. Twenty-one percent of that $3.4 million grant remains, Bouchard said.
Last year the district began eliminating several ed tech positions that had been funded fully through ESSER. McCall said that other cuts might be possible as the district shifts certain expenses from ESSER back to their general budget.
The Maine Family Medical Care Leave Act will also impact the budget moving forward, McCall said. Gov. Janet Mills signed that act into law in July, which allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave.
The new leave program will start in January 2025, with benefits coming in May 2026. A 1-percent payroll tax to fund the program will be split between employees and employers. Maine’s family leave law caps the maximum 12 weeks at the state’s average weekly wage, currently $1,036 and rising to $1,100 on July 1, 2024.
RSU 39 will need to set aside $58,000 for 2024-2025 to include the new paid leave in the salaries and benefits portion of the budget, Bouchard noted. After that, the district will need $116,000 annually for the employer’s 1-percent contribution starting in 2026.
McCall invited councilors to take part in the district’s public budget workshops, which will begin in March. She will suggest to the school board that a city councilor join the board as a non-voting member, as councilors have done in other city committees.
In other business, councilors unanimously voted to reimburse Rick Willey, owner of P.L. Willey Properties, Inc., for overpaid taxes totaling $31,198 from 2012 to 2019. Councilor Lou Willey abstained from that vote.
Rick Willey had contacted city staff since 2012, attempting to correct what he saw as an overpayment of taxes, Thompson said. But staff did not realize until this year that he had been taxed for 4 buildings instead of three on one lot, even though the fourth building is on its own lot in the city tax maps.
Taxes on Willey’s properties for 2020 through 2022 were abated due to overpayments, Thompson said.
Councilors also authorized Thompson to execute a contract with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for a Small Community Grant Project that the city received on behalf of a homeowner. The grant will fully cover $9,927 for a septic system replacement at David Shaw’s home, a project that Dick St. Peter Construction will perform.
The council approved changes to a deed for property on Pond Street. Now vacant, the property once contained a home that the city acquired in 1966 through unpaid taxes. A new lot in the city’s tax maps was recorded but an error in the tax records made it seem as though the city owned both the new and old lot, Thompson said.
Councilors agreed to execute a quitclaim deed for the property, which will be given to property owner Amy Medina at a later date.
The next Caribou City Council meeting will be held Monday, Dec. 11 at 6 p.m. at Caribou Municipal Building, located at 25 High Street.
This story was updated to provide the correct byline.