HARPSWELL — Voters approved a $4.3 million budget and overwhelmingly re-elected Elinor Multer to the Board of Selectmen at the annual Town Meeting on March 10.
Multer received 467 votes, defeating challenger C. Matthew Rich and write-in candidate Rich Daniels, who had 157 and 106 votes respectively.
Ronald Ponziani, with 559 votes, defeated Paul Standridge, who had 168 votes, in the road commissioner election. Uncontested candidate Joanne Rodgers was re-elected to the School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors.
Voters approved every item on the town warrant, including an ordinance legalizing the use of fireworks on and around July 4th and New Year’s Day.
They also approved several new expenditures, including $123,000 for a paramedic to work weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., while most of the town’s volunteer EMTs are at work. Another $74,000 will be spent on design and construction of a garage to house the paramedic and rescue vehicle.
Another first-time expense was Article 44, which asked voters to spend $10,000 on economic development. The money will likely be spent on creating an economic development plan for the town, according to Town Administrator Kristi Eiane. It could also be put towards paying someone to negotiate leases at Mitchell Field on behalf of the town, a service currently performed by a volunteer.
Voters also approved spending $22,500 on street lighting, down from $27,000 in 2011. The reduction will eliminate 38 streetlights from town roads.
The only article residents amended was Article 23, which asked if they wanted to spend $70,000 on maintenance and use of West Harpswell School for the rest of the year.
After an amendment slashed that budget to $34,500, voters raised it back to second $60,000 over concerns the lower amount would curtail use of the building. The final amount eliminated $10,000 in “unanticipated needs.”
The final budget, more than $4.33 million, is not expected to result in a property tax increase, according to Eiane.
In a non-binding referendum on the secret ballot, voters favored keeping or selling the West Harpswell School over developing it as a business center or housing.
They were asked to rank their top choices: keep the school for town use, develop it as a business center, turn it into housing for seniors or working families, or sell it.
With 316 first-place votes, keeping the school for town use was the most popular response. Selling the building came in a close second with 293 first-place votes. Fewer people were most interested in turning the building into housing or developing it as a business center, options that received 110 and 60 first-place choices, respectively.
The poll revealed residents have strong feelings about keeping and/or selling the school. Both options received more first- and fourth-place votes than second- or third-place, suggesting residents either support or oppose the idea. Votes were distributed more evenly for both development options, suggesting residents are lukewarm about both.
Although not explicitly tied to the poll, supporters of a proposed marine-based charter school in Harpswell may have influenced its outcome.
Tom Allen, one of the organizers of the Harpswell Charter School Initiative, said the group encouraged people to choose keeping the school for town use as their first choice. He said the idea is to house the charter school in the former WHS building.
“The way we’ve defined it makes it a good idea no matter where it’s housed,” he said, “and if the West Harpswell School is available to us it would make a wonderful beginner home.”
But he stressed that even had more people preferred selling the former school or using it for another purpose, the charter school initiative would still continue. Although currently the two issues are connected, “that does not mean if the town decided by a wide margin to sell the school that the charter school idea would be invalid. We see the two as potentially connected, but not necessarily connected.”
Going forward, Multer said selectmen will likely hold a workshop on the future of WHS – a discussion that will probably involve the charter school supporters.
“There’s no way we’d ignore that just because it didn’t make it on the ballot,” she said.