In a pair of 5-0 votes at an emergency meeting Thursday night, Sept. 10, selectmen kept Wiscasset Community Center open with $9,000 for payroll, from selectmen’s $30,000 in contingency funds, and set a 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17 open, special town meeting at WCC to vote again on the $829,889 parks and recreation budget. Town officials said the ballot printing company, Election Systems & Software, has acknowledged it erred, and the town will seek costs from the company.
“To think that one little word has caused such an upheaval would be unreal,” Town Manager Dennis Simmons said about “raise” being missing from the “raise and appropriate” part of the Sept. 8 warrant article. “We’re in quite the pickle,” Chair Pam Dunning said.
Selectmen said voters widely approved the article, there are children in center programs and doing their remote learning there, parents would need to stay home from work if WCC closed, and it needs to stay open. “No one in town cares that it was worded wrong,” Selectman Jeff Slack said.
Simmons recounted getting a late day, Sept. 9 email from a citizen who noticed the error. Simmons consulted with Maine Municipal Association and town counsel at Bernstein-Shur. Both were adamant the article did not raise money for the department, so the department could spend no more money and needed to be shut down pending another town vote, he said. “My mistake was that I did not communicate with (Parks and Recreation Director) Duane (Goud) ahead of time. I was just trying to move very quickly on this,” Simmons said.
Then when he got to the center, he saw kids running around who would have no place to go. “So we agreed to leave it open for regular hours today,” and he continued his daylong effort on the matter.
Simmons said Bernstein-Shur advised against using contingency and MMA said it could be done but poses a potential issue with spending on something voters did not approve. Selectman Kim Andersson said, “in the spirit of the warrant,” voters strongly supported the parks and recreation budget.
The board could not take money from another department or run according to last year’s budget like the town did when it put off the June town meeting, Simmons said. And the department brings in money, but currently not enough to meet costs, Simmons said. He repeatedly warned of the “rabbit hole” of funding the department now. If the new article goes on to lose, “that puts us in a deeper hole.”
Other than shutting WCC down completely, tapping contingency was the board’s “least objectionable” option, Simmons told selectmen.
Simmons also addressed claims he said were being made that the Sept. 8 warrant article’s wording was an underhanded attempt to defund the department. “There’s absolutely no way this is what this was about. This was simply a printing error on the ballot, and nothing more.”
Selectman Sarah Whitfield suggested also asking voters to then restore the contingency funds by tapping the department’s budget for it. Slack concurred. That would be a question for another special town meeting, maybe the Oct. 6 one on shoreland zoning, because the proposed Sept. 17 warrant was drawn up for the board to consider that night, Simmons said. Special town meetings need seven days’ notice, he said.
Officials said the ballot company also got wrong a question about spending up to $50,000 from capital reserve to buy a used fire truck off Cape Elizabeth; it was supposed to say $25,000. Simmons said the town will not spend the other $25,000. The error was “not nearly as bad” as the one on the parks and recreation article, he said.
Goud thanked officials and thanked them again later in a WCC email that announced the center is staying open while the new vote is pending. The email also urged voters to turn out.