Topsham selectmen narrowly back public safety budget

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TOPSHAM — Voters at next month’s Town Meeting will be asked to approve an $8.1 million municipal budget for fiscal 2013.

The spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is supported by both the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee, although selectmen endorsed the public safety portion of the budget by only a one-vote margin.

If approved by voters, the budget would increase 1.83 percent. With potential school and county assessments included, Topsham’s tax rate would increase from the current $16.15 per $1,000 of property valuation, to $16.22. This increase would add $21 to the annual tax bill of a home worth $300,000.

Although overall expenses decreased from $18.6 million to $18.5 million, a drop in revenues from $3.6 million to $3.46 million created a net increase in the amount to be assessed in taxes, from $15.02 million to $15.09 million.

The Board of Selectmen on April 19 forwarded a series of articles to the May 16 Town Meeting warrant, including various pieces of next year’s spending plan to be voted on individually. They include $1.5 million for debt service; $2.6 million for general government; nearly $424,000 for the capital projects fund; $2 million for public safety and $1.4 million for public works, solid waste and recycling.

About $706,000 was proposed to be budgeted for fire protection and rescue, on the public safety line. The increase of about $638,000 would include funding for overnight rescue coverage starting Oct. 1.

A group from the Highland Green retirement community asked the town to fund overnight rescue coverage. There has been staff on call during the night, but the group asked for two people to be at the Fire-Rescue station during that time, to improve response times.

“We have an aging society, and people come to live in Maine because it’s a great place to live, and particularly the Topsham-Brunswick area,” said Joyce Morgan of Goldfinch Drive. “But it can be a turnoff if when you get here … you find out you don’t have round-the-clock ambulance service. I think it’s vitally important, and I urge you to vote to approve these funds.”

Selectman David Douglass argued that “these are tough times. Topsham cannot afford this, in my opinion, right now. I understand that when we break it down, it’s $8 per night. Well, currently, at this tax rate, we have people that can’t pay their taxes today. Not only can they not call an ambulance, they may not have their home.”

The Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee ultimately supported the increase.

Selectmen voted 3-2, with Douglass and Ronald Riendeau opposed. The board also voted, by the same margin and with Douglass and Riendeau opposed, that the proposed public safety budget “ought to pass” at Town Meeting.

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.