The town’s draft 2022 budget totals $6,337,339, an increase of $649,236 or 11.41% over 2021. The budget increase will not translate to an identical increase in property taxes. Early estimates point to a 3% tax hike, the town administrator said.
Several factors besides the town budget affect the tax rate. On the expense side, those factors include Harpswell’s share of the budgets for Maine School Administrative District 75 and Cumberland County. On the income side, those factors include non-property-tax revenues, like excise taxes; the use of surplus from previous years; and the value of new construction.
“We added over $30 million of new value last year and I think we’re slated to do the same, so that does help keep the tax rate down in Harpswell,” Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said.
The town plans to draw $900,000 from its fund balance, or surplus, in 2022. Of this amount, $500,000 will reduce the amount necessary to raise from property taxes. The other $400,000 will be split between reserve funds for two projects: the reconstruction of Basin Point Road and upgrades to the recycling center.
Almost half of the overall budget hike comes from the town’s debt. The town will make $630,000 in debt payments in 2022, more than double last year’s $310,000.
The jump in debt service reflects borrowing to complete three recent projects: the 2017-18 demolition of the pier at George J. Mitchell Field, $3.5 million; the 2021 reconstruction of Grover Lane, Gurnet Landing Road and part of Basin Point Road, $650,000; and the 2021 construction at the recycling center, $450,000. The work at the recycling center was the first phase of a $1.1 million project.
The town has two other bonds on the books, for a total of $1.6 million of roadwork in 2013 and 2014. The town will pay off those debts in 2023 and 2024, respectively.
The hefty increase in debt service will be offset by a $100,000 cut to the amount the town will raise for capital reserves. Of the $555,000 appropriation, $350,000 will go toward the Basin Point Road project, expected to cost $600,000. The town will spend $100,000 to buy two new vehicles for law enforcement. Another $100,000 will go into a reserve for emergency vehicles.
Another factor in the overall increase is a sharp uptick in costs for the recycling center and transfer station to haul away and dispose of the recyclables and trash they collect. The budget for the recycling center is $459,791, up $89,274 or 24.09%; while the budget for the transfer station is $110,400, up $20,810 or 23.2%.
Only two other areas will see increases of more than $25,000, both in emergency services. The town will pay Mid Coast Hospital $329,515 for 24/7 paramedic services, an increase of $39,690 or 13.69%. The line item for part-time firefighter wages is $120,254, up $27,140 or 29.15%.
Both increases reflect rising labor costs, including an across-the-board raise of $5 per hour for the town’s part-time and per diem firefighters.
In December, the Harpswell Fire and Rescue Planning Committee had asked the select board to add a third part-time firefighter and establish a $20 minimum wage for town firefighters.
Harpswell Fire Administrator Art Howe said that the town does not plan to add a third part-time position, but does plan to advertise multiple per diem positions. After much discussion, the select board settled on a wage scale of $19.33-$23.43.
Any employee certified as a basic emergency medical technician and Firefighter II will start at $21.33. Most employees have both certifications, Howe said. He called the scale attractive and “highly competitive.”
Harpswell has three independent, volunteer fire-and-rescue agencies. The town supplements those volunteer services with two firefighters on duty from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, as well as a Mid Coast paramedic on duty 24/7.
Scattered throughout the budget are raises for other town employees. “We’ve worked in the figures for salary adjustments for certain positions in town government that we feel need to be addressed, particularly in this labor market,” Eiane said.
The budget more than doubles the appropriation for the 1759 meetinghouse in Harpswell Center, from $14,010 to $35,550, and the town is proposing to take up to another $45,000 from a special account for land acquisition and improvements.
The town plans to paint the building, replace clapboards where necessary and oil the roof shingles. “It’s in dire need of paint,” Eiane said. The clapboard repairs and painting are estimated to cost at least $50,000.
The meetinghouse cemetery needs about $26,250 worth of work, mostly to clean and repair monuments.
The town will spend $15,000 to study options for the reuse of the administration building at George J. Mitchell Field, but has eliminated a $30,000 proposal to replace the roof of the building’s attached garage.
The selectmen deferred a request from the Orr’s Island Cemetery Association for funding to support the preparation of a new section for burials, saying they would first like to assess all the independent cemeteries and their long-term needs.
The town will contribute $23,260 toward the operation of five independent cemeteries, an increase of $7,700 or 49.5%.
In comments to the selectmen, Harpswell Budget Advisory Committee Chair Allan LeGrow listed “concerns over the financial health and future requirements” of the cemeteries as one of several issues he expects to impact future budgets.
The Budget Advisory Committee reviewed the budget over seven meetings in November, December and January. Once the Board of Selectmen approves the budget, voters will have the final say at the annual town meeting by referendum on April 23.
The select board had hoped to return to an in-person town meeting in March after two years of referendums, but decided that COVID-19 continues to make large gatherings unwise. The town election and a referendum on Harpswell’s contribution to Curtis Memorial Library will still take place on March 12.
A grant from the Maine Humanities Council supports the Harpswell Anchor’s reporting on town government.