Harpswell budget could increase 7%; tax hike not expected

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HARPSWELL — Town Meeting will be asked to approve a 7 percent budget increase this year, but a tax increase seems unlikely.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said that could change if selectmen do not approve using money from the town’s fund balance to keep the tax rate low, or if she receives new information on how much Harpswell will owe School Administrative District 75.

The most significant budgetary and philosophical change is the result of the Board of Selectman’s recommendation that the town hire a paramedic from Mid Coast Hospital starting April 1, to ensure dedicated paramedic coverage weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The contract will cost $123,000 for the remainder of the year. As part of Harpswell’s deal with Mid Coast, the town will also spend $74,000 to construct a heated garage near the town offices to house the paramedic and vehicle between calls.

For another $15,000, the town hopes to continue its contract with a regional paramedic service based at the hospital for times when a second responder is needed.

Harpswell now relies on volunteers for all its emergency medical calls. But increased call volume, an aging population and decline in volunteers have led to what Cundy’s Harbor Rescue Capt. Cricket Tupper called “a crisis state in all of our rescue services in terms of having enough volunteers to reliably provide responses.”

The new paramedic will provide coverage when most volunteers are at work.

Another new expense is the addition of a second float at the town dock at Pott’s Point, which will increase spending on docks by $8,500 over this year. Selectmen are also hoping voters will approve spending $35,000 on a new marine patrol boat, which could also be used for rescues, and $20,000 for the Harpswell Heating Assistance program.

Cuts to the federal Low Income Heating Assistance Program have driven more Harpswell residents to the town offices for help than in years past. In 2011, voters spent $5,000 on the fund, but selectmen are hoping to quadruple that amount to meet demand.

Selectmen are also recommending the town increase spending on West Harpswell School. Residents voted to close the school in June 2011, and in August voted to keep the property and spend up to $25,000 to maintain it before the annual Town Meeting in March.

But unexpected interest in using the closed school and a few costly boiler repairs left town staff concerned they might exceed their budget before March. So for next year, the selectmen are recommending spending $70,000 to maintain the school and selectively open it up to the public.

Selectmen hope a non-binding poll on the Town Meeting ballot will clarify what residents want to do with the property. Voters will be able to rank their top four choices from options including keeping the building and land for town activities; developing it as a business center; turning it into housing for seniors or working families, or sell the school and land with restrictions to protect the neighborhood.

Elinor Multer, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said it has been difficult to figure out what residents want to do with the school, and a non-binding referendum seemed like the best way to reach the most residents.

“In terms of deciding which way to start, I just felt at a loss,” Multer said. “If possible we’d like not to head in a direction that turns out unpopular.”

While the ultimate decision about how to reuse the school will come back to voters, Multer is hoping the poll will give selectmen a clear indication of where to begin.

“I’m hoping it comes out with something fairly decisive,” she said.

The annual Town Meeting will be held March 10 at Harpswell Community School.

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