Edie Granger and Joe Ordonez with their daughter, Sapphire. If the school reopened, they say they would send Sapphire there. (Emily Files)

Mosquito Lake residents Edie Granger and Joe Ordonez with their daughter, Sapphire. (Emily Files)

The Haines Borough Assembly on Tuesday voted in favor of designating the Mosquito Lake School as a community center. The move will allow for access to grants to cut back on utility costs, but more importantly, Upper Valley residents will have a place to gather.

The quest of Friends of Mosquito Lake School and Community Center to turn the facility into a gathering place for residents has been going on for a while now. Of course, the first choice is get the building up and running as a school, but low student numbers make that unlikely. It was forced to shut its doors in 2014 after enrollment dropped off. Since then, residents have been lobbying the borough to let them use it as a community center. Around 20 highway residents showed up at the assembly meeting this week to support of the Memorandum of Understanding, which would officially designate the building as a community center.

Dana Hallett is the president of the nonprofit Friends group. He said he couldn’t tell which way the assembly would vote.

“It surprised me that it passed,” he said.

Hallett said the board will figure out what happens next at a meeting on Saturday morning.

“The next step is to reflect a little bit. I’m very appreciative of the borough assembly, I mean, it unanimously passed so there’s a lot of support there.”

Though some were more supportive than others. At the meeting, Assembly member George Campbell started the discussion with this:

“I think it’s in the best interest of the borough to put it up for sale and get rid of it. I recognize people out there want a community center out there, but I think at this point in our borough, I think this is something that needs to be looked at during out budget cycle and not mid-term,” said Campbell.

According to the borough, the school costs around $30,000 a year to maintain. The agreement allows the borough to qualify for Power Cost Equalization, or PCE, which has the potential to provide significant savings. The MOU will automatically renew each quarter until either party wants to change or cancel the agreement.

The assembly wasn’t opposed to putting the building up for sale, but most felt it would be better to wait at least six months or a year to see how the community center does before yanking it away.

Here’s Ron Jackson:

“The people up there at least deserve a community center. We have multiple opportunities here in our reach, but for them to attend community event functions is to come down river and that’s a long drive.”

Campbell responded.

“I live out there and I live there by choice. I don’t think the borough owes the residents that live out there anything more than it owes any other residents. One thing the assembly needs to ask itself: ‘how does this get us closer to our priorities?”

There’s nothing in the MOU about selling the building or not selling it, but interim manager Brad Ryan said the agreement wouldn’t prevent the sale, if that’s what the assembly decides.

The motion to enter into an MOU passed unanimously, 5-0. Assemblyman Tresham Gregg was absent from the meeting and did not phone in. Campbell then suggested the assembly direct Ryan to put the building up for sale. The motion failed to get a second, so Campbell then moved to reconsider the original vote, which he withdrew after more discussion.

Hallett said he envisions a wide array of events, educational functions and fun activities at the Mosquito Lake Community Center. He added that the possibilities are endless. The full MOU is available at khns.org.

The assembly on Tuesday also voted against redistributing the $14,000 originally allocated to the Haines Animal Rescue Kennel. That chunk of money will now go from the community chest fund into the general fund. Assembly member Ron Jackson made the motion to divide that money, which was declined by HARK, among six nonprofits. The move would have funded those agencies to almost 90 percent of what they originally requested from the borough.

A few residents spoke out in favor of giving that money to other local organizations, including HARK director Tracy Mikowski.

“We did not accept those funds because we felt it would be a huge disservice to our fellow nonprofits,” she said. “We were never told, nor was it implied that if we didn’t use the $14,000 that it would be removed from the community chest and be unavailable to the other nonprofits.”

The vote was 3-2 for Jackson’s motion to keep the money within the nonprofit world. But, when there are only five assembly members present – remember, Tresham Gregg was absent and did not call in – four out of five votes are needed to win. So, the motion failed. Jackson said Wednesday he forgot about the four-vote rule until the motion was on the table, but even then he wasn’t sure how it would go. Diana Lapham voted against reallocating the money to the nonprofits, but she said the decision was difficult.

“I don’t like spending all the money and then worrying about where it’s going to come from in the next term, but this money has been appropriated for the nonprofits,” Lapham said. “I don’t have an answer. I am conflicted.”

Campbell also voted against it, but was less hesitant with his choice. He said, as he often does, that the borough’s big priorities are the wastewater treatment plant, Lutak Dock and the small boat harbor, and giving this $14,000 to nonprofits doesn’t get the borough any closer to those goals. Assembly member Margaret Friedenauer responded.

“I would argue that our first priority is quality of life,” Friedenauer said. “And the money is already allocated. Nobody is giving me proposal of how to use $14,500 to further the priority of Lutak, waste water treatment or any other priority. I’m getting a proposal in front of me that outlines how this $14,500 which was originally intended to go toward nonprofits can be used to accomplish that, and that is what I’m considering.”

Jackson said he’s not giving up on getting that money to the nonprofits, but he’ll have to convince either Lapham or Campbell to reconsider.