Sign in or Subscribe See Offers

Sign In:

Harpswell voters to consider $7.4M budget at Town Meeting, decision on comp plan to come later

5 min read
Resize Font Font size +

Without any proposals for significant policy changes, the agenda, known formally as a warrant, is largely routine. Big-ticket items include $550,000 for construction on Peabody Road, $375,000 for renovations at the town recycling center, and $325,000 for a townwide property revaluation. The budget as a whole is up 6.2% from 2023.

Town Administrator Kristi Eiane encouraged voters to turn out, even if the agenda seems short on high-profile questions. “A budget is something that’s reflective of the community’s priorities,” she said, and town officials need to hear from residents to ensure they understand those priorities and meet the town’s needs.

The municipal budget is one of several factors in the property tax rate. The town’s share of the local school district’s budget exceeds the municipal budget, but is not yet available. The town’s share of the Cumberland County budget and other factors also affect taxes.

Because the school figure was not yet available, Eiane was not ready to predict in mid-February whether taxes would go up in 2024. Harpswell’s 2023 tax rate of $6.10 per $1,000 of valuation was the lowest among the county’s 28 municipalities.

Because the comprehensive plan was not ready for the March deadline, it will instead go to voters at a special Town Meeting on a to-be-determined date in May, according to Eiane. The May warrant also will include new floodplain maps from the federal government, which affect coastal construction and flood insurance.

As for short-term rentals, a task force formed to develop regulations is on hiatus after encountering pushback from property managers. Its mission was amended to prepare “an education and/or regulatory policy,” but those efforts still drew resistance. The Select Board put the task force on hiatus Feb. 15.

Also expected for the March warrant were recommendations for affordable housing. It is not clear when those might go to a vote. An ad hoc work group on the subject has developed several recommendations, including the formation of a permanent committee.

The draft 2024 municipal budget totals $7,355,556, an increase of $427,021 from 2023. Much of the increase stems from the recycling center project and the revaluation.

The budget includes $375,000 for the second and final phase of major improvements at the A. Dennis Moore Recycling Center and Transfer Station. The town has already set aside $429,844 for the project, which it estimates will cost $800,000. It expects to seek bids this year and begin construction in 2025, according to budget documents.

The first phase expanded the recycling center’s parking lot and replaced its trash compactors. The second will replace the building’s roof and siding, and upgrade its electrical systems.

revaluation is a process in which an assessing firm visits every property in a municipality to collect up-to-date information about buildings and land. The firm reviews information about local real estate sales, then establishes new values for every property in town.

The process serves “to equalize the valuations so that no one taxpayer pays more or less than their fair share of the tax burden,” according to Maine Revenue Services.

For the revaluation, the town is proposing to take up to $175,000 from its “unassigned fund balance” and $150,000 from taxes. With $75,000 set aside last year, the town would then have $400,000 to fund the project. The fund balance consists of unspent funds rolled over from previous years.

The town expects to start the revaluation this year and complete it in 2026.

The warrant proposes to transfer $350,000 from the fund balance for major road projects, and raise another $200,000 from taxes. The total of $550,000 is primarily for construction on a portion of Peabody Road, off Harpswell Neck Road, according to the warrant. Plans for the project are not yet final, according to Eiane.

Another six-figure project in the budget, at $100,000, is the replacement of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems at the Town Office.

Besides capital projects, employee benefits are contributing to rising expenses. The town is budgeting $559,116 for employee benefits, an increase of $71,031 or 14.6%.

Most of the increase comes from health insurance. In addition to a 4.25% increase in cost, the amount factors in an additional employee. The town is preparing to hire a full-time planner in 2024 after eight years with a contractor.

Another staff change will add a part-time coordinator of communications and community engagement. Eiane said the coordinator, to be hired after Town Meeting, would work up to 15 hours a week. The budget includes a partial year for the position at a cost of $13,000.

Higher expenses in several areas are offset by savings in a few others. For example, the town expects to spend $50,000 less on debt service.

Last year, the town made the final payment on a $1 million bond for a 2013 road project, borrowed $300,000 to build a new communications tower at the Orr’s Island Fire Station, and absorbed higher interest costs for both the new bond and the short-term borrowing it does each year to fund the government until tax payments come in.

The town does not plan any new long-term borrowing in 2024. Eiane said town officials want to avoid borrowing this year because they anticipate taking on debt in the near future to build a central emergency services facility.

Eiane noted that the budget does not include funds for the replacement of the town dock at Potts Point that was destroyed by severe storms in January. The town is waiting on an insurance claim, as well as news about federal disaster aid, and has not yet developed a plan to replace the facility.

The budget remains in draft form, although Eiane does not expect major changes. The Select Board likely will approve the budget on Feb. 29, she said.

In addition to local funds, the town is proposing to spend $145,000 of its remaining allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. It would use $75,000 for emergency communications equipment and consulting, $50,000 as a contribution to Tedford Housing’s construction of a regional emergency housing building at Cook’s Corner, and $20,000 for the Harpswell Heating Assistance Program.

The expenditures would leave the town with a balance of $54,720 from more than $520,000 in federal pandemic relief funds, which it can only use for certain purposes. It must come up with a plan to spend the money by the end of the year.

The warrant includes a total of 54 questions, or articles. Nearly all are budgetary matters. A few are routine articles that authorize the town government to carry out basic functions such as tax collection.

The meeting will take place at Harpswell Community School. The polls for the town election will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The business meeting, when voters will decide all other questions, will start at 10 a.m.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.