Harpswell voters OK $4.5M budget, Cedar Beach fees

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HARPSWELL — Town Meeting on March 14 approved a $4.5 million budget, paying a share of Cedar Beach Road legal fees, a raise for the road commissioner, and the sale of the West Harpswell School.

Harpswell’s total appropriations – including the municipal budget (up 1.8 percent), a potential $7.96 million School Administrative District 75 tax (up 10.1 percent), $30,000 for overlay (down 49 percent) and a $1.26 million county tax (up 6.1 percent) – could add up to $13.8 million, with a property tax increase of 5.41 percent.

Voters opted to use $506,000 from fund balance to shave that tax increase from an previously estimated 7.23 percent hike.

The SAD 75 tax figure is based on Harpswell’s fiscal year, which covers calendar year 2015.

Included in the municipal spending plan is $110,000 for a share of the legal fees from a court battle over use of Cedar Beach Road, a nearly $15,000 increase in the road commissioner’s salary, more than $32,400 for employee pay increases, and $9,000 to fund a public transit pilot project.

The Cedar Beach funding will be a direct appropriation. Voters in 2013 approved borrowing $220,000 to obtain a public access to Cedar Beach, but that authority expired Dec. 31, 2014, and the bonding never occurred.

Cedar Beach/Cedar Island Supporters, the organization fighting to open the road to the Bailey Island beach, asked selectmen in November to propose a bond to pay for about half the court costs it expects to incur.

“The … supporters have carried this battle on their own financing for two years,” or even longer, Selectman Elinor Multer said at Town Meeting, noting that they have raised nearly $200,000.

Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills sided with the group in September 2014, and ruled that the public has a right to use Cedar Beach Road. But road owner Betsy Atkins has appealed that decision.

Selectmen “feel that now is the time to provide support for this effort,” Multer said, adding that the panel believes it is in the town’s interest to have public access to the beach via Cedar Beach Road.

“I wish we didn’t have to be here,” Mike Helfgott of Oceanside Road, the supporters’ president, said“We won our battle, but we didn’t.”

He added that “we’re here because we’re still committed, and perhaps even more so now, because we have this win behind us. We’re so committed to driving this home, so that all the people of the town can have access to one of their beaches.”

Hope Hilton of Basin Point raised concern about the town helping to fund private litigation, even for public benefit.

“It’s just problematic when a town chooses – when it was not the plaintiff or the defendant in a case – to be funding outside actions,” she said. “And I hope that this is an exception to the rule.”

Voters approved the town’s funding “pretty much unanimously,” moderator John Loyd said, which drew applause from those in attendance.

Road Commissioner Rob Ponziani will receive a pay increase of nearly $15,000 in the proposed budget, boosting his annual salary to $30,000. When elected in 2012, he was paid $6,000 a year.

Ponziani had initially asked selectmen to consider increasing his annual pay to $30,000, but the Board of Selectmen opted to call for a raise to $20,000, saying the position might not warrant what amounts to a full-time salary.

But Sam Alexander was among residents who preferred the higher number.

“Ron Ponziani is a rare bird,” Alexander said, praising the road commissioner’s ability to his job and the amount of time he puts into it.

Voters approved Alexander’s motion for the elected officials line item to be increased to reflect a $30,000 salary.

Residents also approved selling the West Harpswell School to Harpswell Coastal Academy, a charter school, for $150,000.

HCA is being credited $40,000 of the sale price for its existing lease payment to Harpswell. HCA will pay the town $10,000 at signing, with the rest to be paid off in equal annual payments in lieu of taxes for the next 10 years.

The academy in July 2013 signed a lease agreement with the Board of Selectmen, which included an option for the academy to purchase the building, Selectman Rick Daniel said.

Multer, SAD 75 board member Joanne Rogers and Ponziani were all unopposed candidates for re-election. They received 205, 222 and 236 votes, respectively.

The meeting at Harpswell Community School was attended by 269 voters, or 6.6 percent of registered voters. The gathering ran about three hours, and all 78 warrant items were approved.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.