NAPLES – As government resources dry up due to the economy, an association aiming to limit the spread of invasive milfoil on Sebago Cove in Naples is finding success with a new way of funding it is calling “Pay to Play.”

Last summer, a nonprofit organization, Save Sebago Cove, spent four weeks mapping milfoil on Sebago Cove, which drains into Sebago Lake. Once it mapped the extent and varying densities of the infestation, it then timed divers as they removed a 50-foot-by-50-foot patch. With knowledge of the extent of milfoil and the rate at which it could be removed, the group was able to come up with a total cost for removing the entire infestation, about $500,000.

With that knowledge in hand, said the originator of the ‘Pay to Play’ model, cove resident Albert Frick, the group started going to door-to-door informing residents of the problem and seeking financial aid directly from those who would benefit: lakeside homeowners. The response has been overwhelming, with more than $12,000 donated so far to help eradication efforts in the cove, which is considered the second-most infested water body in Maine.

“‘Pay to Play’ is just a catchy phrase for a method of privately funding the removal of milfoil,” Frick said. “What we did was start to quantify the problem so people could get their head and arms around what it was going to take to fight the war, so to speak.”

According to the association’s president, Christine O’Leary, the group has tabulated its hourly operation costs at $120 an hour. That goes to pay two professional divers for their time as well as the associated costs of operating the Diver-Assisted Suction Harvester boat the group received last summer from a federal grant.

The federally funded boat was a godsend, O’Leary said, as is the $8,000 a year the group receives from the town of Naples and Maine Department of Environmental Protection. But it’s not enough to fight the growing problem.

“We knew we had to do something,” O’Leary said. “Yes, we had a nice boat, but we didn’t have the money to operate it.”

When O’Leary figured the costs of operating the new boat, the state and local funding came to less than 10 days of removal work, nowhere near what the heavily infested cove required. And that funding had to be spent on common areas and couldn’t be used in front of a particular homeowner’s property, no matter how dense the infestation. Under the Pay to Play, or P2P, program, lakeside homeowners can pay $125 for an hour of milfoil removal. Homeowners can also choose how they want that money spent, either on their property or in a public area.

“That (hourly $125) fee covers our divers, insurance, administration, fuel, overhead, etc.,” O’Leary said. “Many orders request half the time along their shore and the rest in the public way. The concept is really catching on.”

The more than $12,000 donated so far by homeowners represents about 80 hours of removal. O’Leary said people were motivated to take part in hopes of raising their property values and better enjoy their property.

“There are a lot of good people in the Cove, and there’s not a lot of extra money right now, some people have fallen on hard times. But despite all that, people were motivated for this, and I was surprised how many were willing to donate for the public areas, not just on their shorefront,” said O’Leary, a former social worker who is now a stand-up comedian.

One of the customers, Doug O’Neill, a year-round resident, spent $1,000 for milfoil removal from his dock this year.

“They did a great job,” O’Neill said. “I hope people take advantage of it. It’s a great program.”

O’Neill expects to need milfoil eradication on a yearly basis and looks at the expenditure as part of the cost of living on the water.

“Yeah, it’ll probably come back; they say all you need is a fragment an inch long for it to re-grow,” he said. “But I pay taxes. I pay association dues. So this is just another due. But at least we’re getting something for it.”

Not thinking small, O’Leary and Frick said the group’s long-range goals are to completely eradicate milfoil from the 222-acre Sebago Cove.

“This is a grassroots effort, no pun intended,” O’Leary said. “We’d like to see this eradicated in a few years and I think our efforts will truly slow down and eventually snuff it out. That’s what we’re hoping.”

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