An emergency communications tower rises above the Orr’s Island Fire Station on Harpswell Islands Road. (PAM BERRY PHOTO)
Harpswell voters will decide three questions during a special referendum on Election Day, Nov. 8.
The ballot asks if voters will approve the transfer of $25,000 from surplus to the Harpswell Home Heating Assistance Program, if they will approve the transfer of $27,000 from surplus to remove the emergency communications tower at the Orr’s Island Fire Station, and if they will accept a donation of quahog seed from Running Tide Technologies Inc. to spread on the town’s flats.
On Sept. 1, the select board voted to place the three questions on the ballot with its unanimous recommendation.
“We are hearing that a lot of people are concerned about what these heating costs are going to be like this winter and question their ability to be able to afford the heating bills,” Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said of the first question.
Town staff thinks the $25,000 will carry the program through the end of 2022.
“This is not expected to go through this full winter season,” Deputy Town Administrator Terri-Lynn Gaudet said. “We’d be pleasantly surprised if it did.” As of Jan. 1, the town will have more funds available — enough to last until the 2023 budget goes to voters in the spring.
Expenses for the early months of the year already rank 2022 third among the 15 years of the program. The program has provided $33,899 in assistance this year, behind only 2018’s $46,171 and 2019’s $35,390. The fund has a balance of $19,318.
The program saw an “incredible increase” in applicants as fuel prices soared, Gaudet said. The average price of heating oil in Maine hit an all-time high of $5.78 per gallon on May 1.
The town refills the coffers as necessary, injecting $20,000 in 2019 and again in 2020. But donations cover the majority of the program’s expenses. Of the $292,621 raised since the program’s inception in 2008, 61.38% has come from donations.
“We are starting to get more donations, which is wonderful, so we’ll see how far this money carries us,” Eiane said. “We are concerned for these households and we think it’s important to replenish this, or build it up.”
The program is open from Oct. 15 to April 15. Guidelines and application directions are available on the town website, harpswell.maine.gov.
The second question involves the emergency communications tower at the Orr’s Island Fire Station. The town has long planned to replace the tower, but a June 17 lightning strike added urgency. “We feel the need to accelerate the removal of the tower,” Eiane said.
The independent Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department “has expressed concerns that the structural integrity of the tower may be in question,” Eiane added.
The town has received two bids to remove the tower, the higher of which is $26,250. The town is evaluating the bids, but will ask voters for $27,000. “We won’t spend it all if we don’t have to,” Eiane said.
If voters approve the transfer, the tower will come down before the end of the year, Eiane said.
The town plans to replace the 80-foot tower with a 100-foot tower. Voters have approved a bond to replace the tower. The town is also pursuing assistance from a military program called Innovative Readiness Training.
The last item on the ballot concerns a donation of quahog seed from Running Tide Technologies Inc., which operates a kelp and oyster hatchery at George J. Mitchell Field. The value of the donation is $7,599. Under town ordinance, the select board can only accept gifts of up to $3,000, so voters must decide whether to accept the balance.
The town has the seed, but will not transplant it until it gains voter approval. The Harpswell Marine Resources Committee plans to transplant the seed on mud flats as part of an effort to boost the wild quahog population.