Thursday, March 20, 2003

Ft. Williams fee killed

Published in the Current

As expected, the Cape Elizabeth Town Council ended discussion on admission to Fort Williams Park without imposing any fees. Five councilors said they would not support the fees proposed, and most said they would not support any fee for park entry.

Councilor Mary Ann Lynch, who had proposed a $5 annual charge for cars and $40 for tour buses, said she was glad to have raised the issue for discussion, but accepted that it was not to be. The fee was projected to raise $200,000 annually.

Councilor Anne Swift-Kayatta spoke in support of the fees, but for outsiders, not Cape residents. She said just under half of the e-mails she had received were for the fees.

In the historical documents laying out the park, its use was to be “within the financial capabilities of the town,” Swift-Kayatta said.

She wanted the money to go to the upkeep of the park itself, rather than the town’s general operating fund, as Lynch had proposed.

Because of tight budgets, Swift- Kayatta said people who use the park should pay. “Right now, Cape citizens do not freely enjoy Fort Williams,” because they pay for it through property taxes. “Only the tourists do,” she said.

Councilor Penny Carson said she noticed a contradiction between the proposal and people’s positions. While the idea was put forward to decrease pressure on the property tax and allow fixed-income people to stay in town,
most of the people who spoke against the fee were from the group the idea hoped to protect.

Residents spoke for and against the idea, suggesting some realistic solutions and others more amusing. Many wore stickers saying “NO” to show their opposition to the fees.

Eleanor Baker spoke on behalf of the Fort Williams Charitable Foundation, saying the organization’s mission was to raise charitable donations “to help keep the park free and open for all.” She said the council should give the foundation a chance before imposing fees.

“The foundation hasn’t been given enough time to do its job,” she said.

Other residents also expressed their concern that charging a fee would result in decreased volunteerism at the park.

One volunteer, Ruth Pitzele, said, “the people who volunteer might change their minds” if the park was no longer free.

Another resident suggested keeping costs down by increasing volunteerism. Eric Copperman said he moved to Cape from New York, where there was “class conflict” between people who could afford things and people who could not.

“Please do not do this to our town,” he said. Instead, people could help the town budget themselves: “Go to the park, pick up the trash, do it for free,” he said.

Some also spoke about the tradition of keeping the park free for everyone to use.

Al Barthelman, chair of the Fort Williams Advisory Commission, said the fort’s operating expenses were less than half a percent of town spending.

Jack Sears said Portland Head Light would be the only Maine lighthouse
with an admission fee, and suggested opening the south road for free access to the lighthouse alone. He then drew laughs with his idea of selling sponsorships for the park; he distributed to councilors digital mock-ups of the lighthouse with a Nike “swoosh” logo on it as an example of a way to help the park make money.

Stephen Simonds said he was a member of the last original Fort Williams study committee before the park was actually purchased by the town. “The word we heard was ‘leave this Fort Williams open without a fee,’” he said.

Brian Guthrie suggested asking for donations and seeing how much that raised. He also proposed charging a fine for people who get locked in the park by staying after closing time, saying they cost the town money to unlock the gate and let them out.

Representatives of the tourism industry also spoke to the council. Both Steve Lyons of the state Department of Tourism and Don Haggett, who helps bring bus tours to Maine, said tour companies would want lead time, to be able to incorporate the admission fees into ticket prices.

Jeanne Gross, director of the Portland Head Light Museum, said the museum’s entry fee of $2 turns away half of the people who get to the door. She predicted the volunteers would quit if there were fees, and that the town would have to hire replacements for them.

School funding also came into the discussion. Kevin Stack said he saw a councilor on television say that the town is “wealthy and can afford to pay for a park.” He differed, saying “if we were a wealthy town, there would have been no problem” to pay for the school construction project discussed the previous evening.

Elaine Moloney, finance chair of the School Board, who spoke as a private citizen, said “the schools are struggling in maintaining programs.”

She challenged the town’s statement that its contribution to the county budget is “beyond their control,” while the schools were held to account for reductions in state funding totaling nearly $1 million over the past two years.

“We must look at both the school and the town budgets as one,” she said.

When faced with cutting programs or charging fees, she saw the latter as “the lesser of two evils."