Houlton's paved roads are in dire need of repair and the town is struggling with how to fix nearly 46 miles of roads with limited funds. Credit: Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — It will take 44 years and $8.7 million to repave 46 miles of roads at the town’s current rate of spending, according to Houlton’s director of public works.

Public Works director Chris Stewart has approached the council for the past several years regarding the dire condition of the town’s roads while crews continue to patch cracks, potholes and large divots with the annual allotment of $200,000 for road maintenance.

In order to make any real headway, the road budget needs to nearly triple, he said, but it comes when taxpayers may already be facing increases. The town’s current mill rate is $22.60 per $1,000 valuation and the school budget increase alone raises it to $23.60 per $1,000.

With asphalt at $116 per ton, it currently costs about $188,912 to pave one mile of road, Stewart said.

“We want to get moving on the roads,” Stewart said during the May 22 Houlton Town Council meeting at the town office. “It’s going to hurt, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s been a long time since we’ve had sufficient money for the roads. We need to get going and we’re falling behind.”

The town actually needs about $750,000 a year to begin catching up and within five years about half of the paved roads could be completed, Stewart said. Most towns are on a 10- to12-year repair cycle because roads last about that long before repaving is necessary, he said.

In 2021, Stewart asked the town council about starting a town roads committee to develop a forward-looking plan to address the aging and neglected roads. But it has been a challenge for the committee to plan repairs without the funding to do so, he said.

Last Thursday, Stewart met with the roads committee, which agreed to ask the town council to consider a $3 million municipal bond issue to get things moving, he said. The majority of committee members favored a 20-year note, not a 30-year note on roads that will last from 10 to 15 years.

A bond issue would require voter approval this fall for Stewart and his crews to begin work in the spring, he said.  

Nonetheless, Town Manager Marian Anderson said she is concerned about bonding a wasting asset and roads are wasting assets, she said.

Anderson talked about upcoming town budget increases, suggesting the council consider using $300,000 from the undesignated fund balance if the auditor says it can be done, plus the budgeted $200,000 and another $110,000 from Maine’s Local Road Assistance Program Funds for this year instead of a note to get things rolling.  

The recently passed Houlton School District budget increased the town’s local assessment to $237,481; the county changed its fiscal year meaning there will be county bills due; and the town will complete a market adjustment on properties in June, which could also increase some property taxes, she said.

A $3 million bond issue would add to that burden, she said.

Town Councilor Sue Tortello expressed concern about touching the undesignated fund balance, considering all that is happening.

“It doesn’t sound like good timing to me at all,” she said.

Stewart said the reason he suggested $3 million is that they could spread the money over five years. Paving all the roads at once would mean they would all need repaving at the same time, which would be too expensive.

The bond issue would only be a temporary fix to get things rolling. Stewart said the town still needs a plan for putting more money into the budget cycle for roads to get them to the $750,000 amount annually.

“We can’t go five years and say we’re good for five years and go back to the $200,000 a year level or we’re going to start going back down hill,” he said.

Tortello said the town council needs to move on this right away. The councilors will receive a list of all the roads needing repairs for discussion at the next meeting in June.

“The key will be the people of Houlton, leave it in the hands of the voters,” she said. “Here we are, it’s almost June and if we want to do this in the fall we need to get our ducks in a row and get it ready to be packaged off and ready to be on the ballot.”

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...