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  • Bangor Daily News

    Houlton’s new town manager faces his first major challenge

    By Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli,

    26 days ago

    HOULTON, Maine — There’s no honeymoon period for Houlton’s new town manager who was caught off guard this week by a sharp increase in the town’s contribution to the local school district.

    The town had budgeted for giving about $186,189 in additional local revenue to RSU 29, the same as last year, said Jeremy Smith, who arrived from New Mexico at the end of April to assume his new duties.

    Prior to a town vote this week, the school board had approved increasing the local additional share by $750,000 for the four towns in the district to help cover a $1.1 million deficit. On Thursday, voters chose to increase that $750,000 to $1.22 million, meaning Houlton now owes the school district $2.1 million required by the state and $870,501 in additional local share.

    All told, the school district is essentially asking for 30 percent more from the town, Smith said.

    “That will impact our budget as far as operations this year and we are going to have to adjust the mill rate to accommodate that expense,” he said. “The sudden changes are painful, surprising and people feel like they are getting the rug pulled out from under them again.”

    The mill rate is going to go up for the second straight year and that’s going to surprise a lot of people, Smith said. While the final increase is not yet determined, Smith said it will likely be over two mills, or $2 more in taxes per $1,000 of assessed property value.

    “I would like to dive into what the state is planning long term, there’s only one formula and it’s applied to all school districts but not all school districts are the same,” he said. “It’s a bigger issue and a longer process to get to a viable solution.”

    While the budget situation is daunting, Maine is just where Smith wants to be, and he’s enthusiastic about Houlton’s future.

    “I have been to lots of small towns and sometimes you go into the town and it feels like they are drying up, that it’s depleted all its resources,” he said. “But Houlton feels like it is about to be discovered. That also means change is coming.”

    Last month the Houlton Town Council approved Smith’s appointment at a salary of $110,000; the culmination of a seven-month search of 50 or more applications for the open slot.

    The Maine Municipal Association assisted the town in the search after town manager Marian Anderson retired following five years in the position for personal reasons at the end of August. Police Chief Tim DeLuca was working double duty as interim town manager until Smith’s arrival on April 30.

    Most recently, Smith was the director of community services for the city of Española, New Mexico, where he was responsible for overseeing multiple budgets and community programs.

    He has served the arts community taking on a variety of roles, serving as the creative district director for Commerce and Development Corp., focusing on economic development and art and serving on the board of Los Alamos County Art in Public Places for four years.

    Before councilors made their final decision, they flew Smith to Houlton and were pleased with the way he engaged with the business community during his five-day visit.

    “With no prompting from us, he wandered about town talking to people and getting a feeling for the community,” said Jane Torres, executive director of the Greater Houlton Regional Chamber of Commerce.

    Just a week before his arrival, seven downtown businesses closed on the heels of the 2024 total solar eclipse that drew more than 20,000 to the town of less than 6,000 people. A few of the entrepreneurs said they wished the town had reached out to help them.

    Smith did not see that as the bellwether of things to come.

    He also pointed out that many times new business owners don’t really understand upfront what they need for town compliance and town officials don’t always know what the entrepreneur is asking.

    “It’s not that we don’t want you here, it’s more that we really don’t understand what you’re trying to do and you don’t have the experience to tell us, so it really is like not speaking the same language,” he said.

    In New Mexico he helped create a town checklist for new businesses, and that might be possible for Houlton, he said.

    “A number of communities struggle with these downtowns that are way more vacant than ours with way less industry and commerce,” Smith said. “Houlton already has a lot of that going on and that opens up the opportunity for niche retail businesses.”

    Additionally, he said there are federal grants and seed money that might help support small, novel businesses like the ones that just closed, adding that he is open to working with the chamber of commerce and other small business entities to draw and keep more creative ventures downtown.

    Last week, Smith said with change, the familiar might become less so. There might not be the same businesses, the same faces that people are used to, he said.

    “It’s the growing pains, the necessary things to keep new things coming,” he said. “The business model is not the same as it was even five years ago. It’s a whole new business model out there.”

    The way Smith explained it, the work week is changing, schools are changing and business models are evolving. There are so many things changing, it’s almost like everybody is waiting to see what happens, he said.

    “But sometimes you’ve just got to go with it, jump in and try something and if it doesn’t work, adjust and try something else,” he said. “Don’t dig your heels in.”

    As far as preliminary goals?

    Smith said he has several, including seeking grants and state funding that match town goals; improving low to moderate income home-buying opportunities; taking care of infrastructure needs like paving and patching roads, working with the water and sewer on drainage and sidewalks; and supporting health and human services.

    “It’s not that I want to come in and change a bunch of things,” Smith said. “I want to come in and open a bunch of doors and see where can we go. Where do we want to go? What’s too far beyond our reach?”

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