Total approaches $100,000, city manager says Belfast had no choice

Belfast pays last of RSU 20 withdrawal bills

Wed, 02/04/2015 - 10:45am

    BELFAST - Any benefits in the city’s decision to leave Regional School Unit 20 remain to be seen. But the cost of the process is now known.

    On Tuesday, the Council authorized spending just over $4,000 to pay outstanding legal bills. The expense was the last in a running account earmarked for RSU withdrawal totalling $95,000 over a period of three years.

    Most of the total amount, roughly $70,000, went toward legal fees. The multi-town withdrawal had no precedent in Maine and no direct statutory roadmap, and Belfast attorney Kristin Collins led the city and surrounding towns through the process, twice.

    Additionally, Belfast spent $25,000 for an independent study by Portland-based Planning Decisions after a first withdrawal bid failed in 2013. The consultancy was hired to look into several options for the city, including whether it made sense to try again in light of Northport’s decision to split from the group the second time around.

    Smaller amounts went toward advertising for two elections and presentations to RSU 20 and the Deparatment of Education.

    “When we started we didn’t know how much to put aside because no one had done it before,” said City Manager Joe Slocum on Wednesday. 

    In 2012 not many of the handful of towns in Maine pursuing withdrawal were far along in the process. Arundel was near the front and Slocum said the town set aside $60,000. Belfast started with $50,000, then added more money during the second withdrawal bid for additional legal fees and the Planning Decisions study. 

    “I wish we didn’t have to spend that money but we really didn’t have a choice,” Slocum said. 

    Belfast residents saw double-digit tax increases over each of the past three years. These went almost entirely to fund the consolidated school district. Additionally, the law offered no clear way out.

    “[The state] made a huge mountain for us to climb to extricate ourselves from a relationship we never wanted to be in in the first place, and there’s no question in my mind that that relationship cost us money,”  Slocum said.

    This year, the city carried roughly $20,000 forward from the 2013-14 budget and added another $16,000 last November. The total came up short by $4,061.93 in the final tally, but the Council on Tuesday was quick to approve paying the balance out of the general fund.

    Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville joined Belfast in withdrawing from RSU 20 and reforming as RSU 71. However, Belfast was the only municipality to set aside money for an attorney. 

    Now that RSU 71 has an elected school board and interim superintendent, Slocum said he hoped that any legal costs related to the new district would be shared among all five towns.  

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