CAPE ELIZABETH — Town officials have slashed more than $1.2 million from the municipal budget in response to the Town Council’s mandate to reduce the tax burden for 2021, and the council is still debating whether to put off a project to replace the artificial turf at Hannaford Field.

Town Manager Matthew Sturgis said the cuts came from a number of places, but the bulk of the reductions, about $1.2 million worth, came from the capital planning budget. That means several new projects, including a rehabilitation of Shore Road, a drainage project planned for Kettle Cove, and a plan to replace the town’s streetlight bulbs with more efficient LED bulbs, will have to wait at least a year to begin.

“We’ve pretty much gutted our plans for next year,” Sturgis said.

The council held a public hearing on the proposed $34.6 million combined 2021 budget Monday, but no one spoke from the public. Right now, the proposed budget, according to Sturgis, will result in an increase to the tax rate of 0.9%. That adds up to 18 cents, or $45 for the owner of a $250,000 home.

Councilors told school officials and the school board in April that major cuts were going to be necessary in order to keep the tax increase to a minimum. Cape Elizabeth, like other communities in the area, is trying harder than usual to reduce the tax burden, bearing in mind the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, such as rising unemployment. The cuts all came from the $6.8 million municipal spending plan, with no reductions on the school side of the budget.

The field, which the high school uses for football, soccer and lacrosse, could be declared unsafe, and unusable, if the council declines to go forward with the project this year, according to Sturgis.

“The surface has come to the point of (needing) replacement,” Sturgis said.

Sturgis said the town has already saved $275,000 of the $600,000 needed to fund the turf replacement. For the project to happen this year, as planned, the town would need to float a short-term, five-year bond to pay for the rest, but that will only happen if the council allows the first payment of $65,000 to be added to the budget. If the council decides not to include the payment to the 2021 budget, the turf replacement will have to be put off for at least one year.

The artificial turf, first installed back in 2008, is showing its age. Public Works Director Robert Malley said the town hired a testing firm to see how hard the surface of the turf is on a scale ranging from 0 to 240. A score of 140 is considered ideal, and any score of 200 or higher is considered hard enough to cause serious injury.

“There’s a higher risk as you get at or over 200,” Malley said.

Overall, the field’s average score was 188, but many individual spots scored at or above 200, including one testing location that scored 226. Malley declined to make an outright declaration of the field’s safety overall, but said, “I would have a concern about allowing play on it.” Sturgis, when asked if the field would be declared unsafe without a replacement this year, said, “I think you would have to come to that conclusion.”

School Superintendent Donna Wolfrom told The Forecaster that she wasn’t sure what sports programs might be available during the 2020-2021 school year, but said if the field is not replaced, turf safety could make use of the field impossible.

“If the turf is not replaced this summer we will likely not be using the field in the fall due to liability issues,” she said. “The field is used for several sports so we would need to make alternate arrangements for those events, should fall sports occur.”

At Monday’s meeting, Councilor James Garvin addressed suggestions he had heard that the field was a “luxury item,” and not a necessary expense this year.

“That I wholeheartedly disagree with,” he said.

Hearing that the field might be declared unsafe, Garvin said, made him want to include the $65,000 in the current budget in order to the get the project started.

“That, frankly, is enough for me,” he said of the safety concerns.

Councilor Christopher Straw said he was not in favor of adding the money to the budget.

“I want to see our town devoting funding to other uses than this,” he said.

The council moved to set Wednesday, May 27, to vote on finalizing the proposed 2021 budget to be presented to voters in July.

Sean Murphy 780-9094

Email: [email protected]

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