Harpswell voters trim budget, renew border dispute
Multer elected to Board of Selectmen
HARPSWELL — With concerns about the economic crisis seemingly looming over every expenditure, Town Meeting voters on March 14 approved a $4 million budget that is 2.3 percent less than the allocation approved last year.
The spending plan is also nearly $7,500 below the LD 1 spending cap, a threshold residents avoided by rejecting several proposals, including $50,000 for a municipal wind turbine; $50,000 toward the Hamilton Place workforce housing project; $15,000 for utility relocation near Cribstone Bridge, and $5,000 for the Carrying Place Assembly.
The Carrying Place Assembly is the group lobbying for the re-examination of a 1998 decision by the state that defined Harpswell Neck's border with Brunswick. Voters approved the move, 92-61, but overwhelmingly defeated the group's funding request for an effort that will require action by the state Legislature, and possibly, legal representation.
Voters also elected 81-year-old Elinor Multer to the Board of Selectmen. Multer defeated David Chipman, a former selectman, 421-380. She replaces Amy Haible, who last year served as the board's chairwoman.
Incumbent Road Commissioner Robert Venard was re-elected to the position. He defeated challenger Martin Baker, 445-320.
Joanne Rogers was re-elected to the School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors. She ran unopposed.
Overall, 813 voters cast secret ballots, while 426 cards were distributed for floor votes.
The business meeting lasted more than eight hours. Many warrant items encountered amendments by a handful of voters who sought to convince residents that now is the time for belt-tightening.
Katherine Chatterjee, a former selectman, led many of those efforts. Chatterjee said the economic climate required voters to examine "each and every warrant article" for opportunities to trim.
And examine they did.
Many of the amendments proposing to cut expenditures failed, including one that would have eliminated 3 percent raises to some town staff by slicing $19,400 from the general administration budget. Residents overwhelming defeated the amendment, with some arguing that town staff are underpaid.
"It's crazy to do a blanket cut without time to tell people the repercussions," said Burr Taylor, who serves on the Budget Advisory Committee. "Town employees are already underpaid. We're talking about underpaying them more. It's like feeding a horse only half the water. You can only do that for so long."
Chatterjee later challenged the benefit of paying the Midcoast Council of Business Development and Planning nearly $7,900 and moved to strike it from the budget.
"This town is not very attractive to incoming business given that we've voted down every single (project) that's come our way," Chatterjee said.
But Town Planner Carolyn Tukey disagreed, arguing that MCBDP had helped the town apply for and receive several grants.
Voters overwhelmingly defeated Chatterjee's amendment.
Other amendments encountered a similar fate. However, voters supported a proposal to reduce a request for pier clean-up and road improvements at Mitchell Field from nearly $13,600 to $1,000.
Voters supported a subsequent expenditure of $5,000 to go toward establishing zoning and performance standards at Mitchell Field. The money is the town's match for a $30,000 grant.
Residents also supported an ordinance amendment that could make it easier to recall elected officials. Some expressed concern that the change could discourage residents from running for office because a well-organized interest group could have an elected official removed because of a policy decision. But most voters disagreed, including Multer, the town's new selectman.
She was on the Governance Committee that introduced the amendment, as was Chipman, her opponent.
"Apparently (the ordinance) hasn't discouraged either of us from running for office," Multer said.
A $116,000 allocation for the Curtis Memorial Library was also overwhelmingly approved, but not before generating spirited debate. The town's annual allocation has been a source of contention for years, with some arguing that Harpswell is subsidizing a Brunswick institution that Harpswell residents rarely use.
That was the contention of Ed Sparks, who proposed slashing the allocation to $50,000.
"I'm not putting down libraries," Sparks said. "I read every day. This is about Harpswell taxpayers paying for a Brunswick facility."
Chipman disagreed, arguing that Curtis Memorial Library is a private library.
"If it were in Harpswell, I think we'd have a lot less heartburn about this," he said.
The amendment irked some residents.
"If we're going to go through every budget item and say, 'I'm only going to pay for the services I use', then we are no longer a member of a vibrant society," said Susan Horowitz.
Revisting the border dispute with Brunswick also generated debate, with proponents arguing that a 1998 decision by the state wrongly stripped the town of hundreds of acres of intertidal clam flats.
Using maps and records dating back to 1738, when Harpswell was North Yarmouth, Maine was Massachusetts and America was still a British colony, members of the Carrying Place Assembly said they had indisputable evidence the state's decision was wrong.
Gordon Weil, a selectmen at the time of the decision, disagreed. Weil said he didn't dispute the evidence, but believes the 1998 compromise was the "best result Harpswell could hope for." Weil added that the 1998 decision was backed by the presiding Superior Court justice, and that appealing the decision would have cost the town thousands of dollars in legal expenses.
"I don't say (the evidence) is wrong," Weil said. "I say it's not possible."
The majority of voters disagreed. However, most voted against spending town money on the effort.
The 1998 decision must be overturned by the state Legislature. Carrying Place member Sam Alexander said Rep. Leila Percy, D-Phippsburg, has submitted a bill that would begin that process.
But as of Wednesday, the bill was not listed on Percy's sponsor list.
Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or email@example.com