Paris slaps council with loss of funding

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PARIS – The budget committee wouldn’t budge on its recommendation to cut funding for the Oxford Hills Growth Council even after listening to some vehement and animated appeals for more money for the area’s economic development organization.

It was a vote of no confidence, one member said. Four of the seven committee members voted to not change their original recommendation.

On Wednesday night, the budget committee held a public hearing on next year’s budget. The most contested line in the proposal was the cut in Growth Council funding. The council asked Paris for $12,500, but received $2,500. Voters will act on that amount at town meeting.

“The communication between the town and the Growth Council has not been good,” Forrie Everett of the budget committee said. “Twelve-thousand is not a lot, but for a small town it is. We’re staying close to the bone. And we’re not getting our $12,000 worth.”

Growth Council Director Brett Doney told the committee that his organization was trying to save costs by moving out of its Paris office and slashing its intern budget. Together those actions would slash $27,000.

“I would argue for $12,000 the town has received an incredible return in investment,” Doney said mentioning highway improvements, the college center and businesses that have received life-sustaining loans.

Budget Committee members complained that the Growth Council promised several years ago it would be self-sufficient by now and wouldn’t need handouts. Some committee members also questioned Doney’s salary, $101,000, and extraneous expenses, such as a trip Doney made to Washington, D.C., to accept a plaque for Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, who couldn’t make it there.

Doney argued that the council is not self-sustaining because it does not focus exclusively on revenue-generating deals, like low-risk rather than high-risk loans. After the meeting, he said his salary is comparable to or less than what typical, experienced economic developers make.

Jeff Sutton, president of Maine Machine Products, spoke forcefully as he tried to persuade the committee to support the council. He said the council was the only lender that would help his Paris company when it was struggling and banks wouldn’t go near it.

“It is not a sound investment for the town to withhold investment just because you didn’t like some things,” he said. “When Paris whispers, it’s a shout to Oxford Hills and (this decision) is very short-sighted.”

Had Sutton’s company gone under, about 160 jobs would have been lost. Town Manager Sharon Jackson said if Maine Machine Products, one of the top taxpayers in the town, had left, it would have devastated Paris. She asked the budget committee and selectmen to consider funding half the amount requested by the council.

Hank Morton, owner of Paricon Inc., also spoke on behalf of the council, mentioning businesses like Bancroft Contracting that have received council loans allowing it to pull through tough times.

The $12,500 “is a minimal cost of insurance policy to go forward,” he said.

But selectman Barbara Payne said none of the towns know what’s going on with the council and their investment in it.

“The communication is terrible,” she said, then lifted a council pamphlet. “In 2005, the budget was $3,500 for recruitment, and in 2006, they cut two positions. They’re downsizing.”

She continued, “I would like a full and complete picture. We’ve received just the highlights.”

After the meeting, Doney said Oxford Hills does not adequately support economic growth. “The point is the region should do something because the economy is not going to improve by itself. I urge communities to invest in economic development,” he said.

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