Cost of using closed school exhausts Harpswell budget

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HARPSWELL — The town has only owned West Harpswell School for six weeks, but several community groups have already asked to use the vacant building for things like benefit dinners, a library and a place for home-schooled children to gather.

The surprising demand caught the Board of Selectmen and town officials off guard, forcing them to make decisions without a policy governing use of the building.

Now selectmen are trying to create a policy, and trying to determine if the budget allows them to let residents use the school at all before the March Town Meeting, when voters will decide what happens next to the school.

Voters on Aug. 23 overwhelmingly decided to take ownership of the school. It closed in June, after residents endorsed School Administrative District 75’s plan to shut the school and transfer its students to the consolidated Harpswell Community School.

In accepting the school, voters allocated $25,000 to cover the cost of maintenance and insurance until March 2012.

But that amount did not account for requests to use the school in the meantime for anything more than occasional basketball practices. A larger-than-expected fuel bill has nearly depleted the budget.

“We didn’t anticipate all of these requests coming to the town in this time frame and the budget doesn’t really reflect the ability to have all those things occur between now and March,” Town Administrator Kristi Eiane told the selectmen on Oct. 13.

Eiane said the town has already spent $13,000 on insurance and $6,300 on oil, leaving only $5,700 left in the budget until March.

“I’m concerned that now we might even go over budget with the basketball practice because we needed more fuel in the tank than we realized,” she said.

Since then, air was discovered in the fuel lines leading to the school’s boiler, which will cost an estimated $6,370 to fix.

Eiane said she planned on Thursday, Oct. 27, to ask selectmen to appropriate money from the town’s contingency fund to cover the expense.

In the meantime, Selectman Jim Henderson has been working on a new policy that would guide the board in deciding which requests to grant for use of the building.

The policy, which was scheduled to be discussed at the Oct. 27 board meeting, would require anyone who wants to use the school to designate a party responsible for  liability and costs. The board could also require the user to pay a fee.

This fee, Eiane said, could make it possible for people to use WHS before the March Town Meeting, even if the town exceeds its $25,000 budget.

Although it may add to the amount Harpswell spends on utilities, using the building could reduce the cost of insurance. If the town uses the building 31 percent of the time, Eiane said, the cost of insurance drops to just under $2,000.

“I think the challenge here is to get a handle on what would the costs be” before proceeding with a new policy, Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Elinor Multer said Tuesday.

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

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