Different paths forward for Treasure Island

Is there a better way to manage Treasure Island?

Different paths forward for Treasure Island

Treasure Island is a treasure, both as a recreational facility and for its ecology. Its beach is the last remaining beach with public access on Lake Fairlee, yet most of the facility is undeveloped. The northern portion of the property contains important lakeshore wetlands that support habitat for many species, including the cherished loon.

The facility is owned by the Town of Thetford. However, it is located primarily in the Town of West Fairlee, with a small portion of the property in the Town of Fairlee. Thetford pays municipal property taxes to the other towns because of this. It also pays into the state education fund, to which it is usually exempt. However, because of a special exemption – that’s a story in itself – Thetford is only taxed for education on the assessed value of Treasure Island’s buildings ($160,000) and not its land ($1.1 million). Thetford paid $13,919 total in property taxes for Treasure Island in 2020.

There’s a host of federal restrictions on the facility that make it virtually impossible to sell, except to the state or another municipality. Among those restrictions is the proviso that it remains accessible for public recreation, which means Thetford can’t shutter the facility, turn the public away, or even conserve its wetlands in a way that could be construed as a limit to public recreation.

If you are one of the taxpayers who feels that Thetford should not be in the business of running a business, you might be saying, “Well, darn!” Yet if you are one of the taxpayers that learned to swim at Treasure Island, or your kids did, then you might be saying, “Good! Treasure Island is a treasure!”

There might be a way where everyone could win, though. Thetford could contract out the management of Treasure Island to a third party, such as one of the many camps or lake-centric organizations that already exist. These organizations already have a presence on the lake and have the experience and relationships necessary to operate a lakefront business. Some of them, like the Aloha Foundation, already have a facilities manager that is taking care of similar properties in the area.

Thetford doesn’t have a facilities manager. It’s a task that used to fall to the Recreation Director – one of their many hats – and now is being picked up by the Town Manager. It’s not natural to a town Thetford’s size to have the capacity to run a facility like Treasure Island to its highest potential. It means sending our road crew one town away to support Treasure Island or hiring a contractor. Thetford also has challenges policing the property against trespassers and shady dealings after hours. It’s not on the Thetford police department’s regular patrol because it’s in another town. And there’s other overhead, from the spare water filter stored in Town Hall to the administrative burden of managing payroll for a half dozen seasonal employees.

There are other complications you wouldn’t normally think about, as well, such as when a beachgoer wants a refund for one reason or another. A lifeguard, gatekeeper, or even recreation director can’t issue a refund from the municipal coffers; only the Town Treasurer can. The beachgoer must travel to Town Hall during office hours.

Treasure Island is a business. Roughly half of beachgoers in 2020 were not Thetford residents, according to data collected as part of the Town’s pandemic response. If Thetford got out of the business of running Treasure Island on a day-to-day basis, it could free up the Town Manager’s time to focus on more local issues, such as improving the efficiency of road maintenance or delinquent tax collection. In fact, the amount of time the Town Manager spent on Treasure Island this season created a notable lack of attention to other matters. The same was true last season under a different Town Manager, even with an experienced full-time Recreation Director.

In addition to savings on overhead, there could be direct savings in the budget. Thetford currently spends roughly $50,000/year on Treasure Island specifically, not counting a Recreation Director. In 2020, that was offset by $25,000 in revenue, which means direct savings could amount to approximately $25,000/year, assuming any revenue was retained by the managing organization. However, if Thetford continued to pay property taxes and hold some level of insurance while another entity managed the facility, one could easily subtract $15,000 from those savings, reducing the total to $10,000 saved per year.

Those savings start to add back up when you consider the expense of a full-time Recreation Director. Last year, this position was costing the Town roughly $85,000/year in salary and benefits. If the Thetford Recreation Department no longer ran Treasure Island, the department could be effectively staffed by a part-time Recreation Coordinator, bringing the cost of that position down to $25,000/year or less. That’s potentially $60,000 in savings, plus the $10,000 in savings from other specific budget line items. Even if a part-time Recreation Coordinator got a $10,000 raise, the potential savings would still represent roughly 2% of the Town’s overall tax rate if all else remained the same.

A third-party manager would still be subject to the same federal restrictions that bind Thetford, including public access for recreation, plus whatever other stipulations the Town might put in the management contract, such as a fee reduction for Thetford residents (since, in this hypothetical contract, Thetford would still be paying property taxes). Those who love Treasure Island would not see a change in the fundamental character of the facility. It might even improve with more expert and proximate management.

Some camps have already expressed interest in using Treasure Island for overflow activities from their own operations on the lake. It’s a property that, with potentially no property tax liability to them, could help them balance new pandemic-related distancing requirements and best practices. The wetlands could serve as an educational resource for campers and the public alike. The potential for expanded facility uses, and thus earnings, increases with such a third-party partner. That partner could use any retained earnings to improve the facility, both for their campers and the public.

In fact, this concept was being pursued in 2020, but it was promptly dropped following a change in leadership after 2021 March elections. Some Town officials want to keep the operation of Treasure Island in-house and even substantially expand its operations. They envision a year-round facility and a true public beach with no fees – admirable and worthy goals and perhaps feasible with the right management. However, it would increase overhead for the Town, require a substantial upfront financial investment in the facility and its infrastructure to accommodate year-round activities, and likely require at least one new full-time Town employee in addition to what we have now, all without any immediate revenue to offset costs and possibly eliminating what revenue there already is. A new full-time position would increase the tax rate by roughly 2%, while losing all revenue would represent another increase of approximately 1% – all before taking into account any additional investment in the facility or its infrastructure or added overhead.

David Roth, West Fairlee property owner and Chair of the Treasure Island Exploratory Committee, wrote over email, “It's a goal of the Committee to create substantial interpretative resources at Treasure Island that could be made available at little or no cost to the public along with traditionally available swimming/swim lessons/watercraft rentals etc. It is also the goal of the Committee to work toward Treasure Island being open all year around for recreation and nature exploration.”

Treasure Island will already need to raise more money; the Treasure Island Capital Fund is running a deficit from improvement projects this year, primarily from the installation of pea gravel around one of the pavilions. Treasure Island is worthy of investment, care, and support, but if taxpayers can get the same or better outcome for fewer taxpayer dollars, why wouldn’t they take it? Especially at a time with large projected budget increases for repairs to Route 132 and whatever other critical repairs are identified in a forthcoming town-wide road assessment. Especially because Treasure Island is not just a Town resource. It’s a business.

Should the resources and time of the Town be spent on a facility beyond its borders, used substantially by nonresidents, or freed up and focused on Thetford’s immediate needs? It will be something to watch in budget season, as another 1-3% budget increase in the Recreation Department on top of the 4.9% projected increase for the Route 132 bond payments may force a public discussion on the town’s priorities.

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