Harpswell’s 2023 municipal budget totals $6,943,535, an increase of $606,196 or 9.57% over last year.
The town plans to use $600,000 from its $4.08 million surplus to negate the impact on property taxes. But the tax rate also depends on Harpswell’s share of the Maine School Administrative District 75 budget, which is not yet known.
“As we get closer to town meeting, we will do some work to provide an estimated tax rate,” Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said. Harpswell landowners pay a tax of $5.90 per $1,000 of valuation, the lowest rate among Cumberland County’s 28 municipalities.
The Select Board approved the budget 3-0 on Feb. 2. The budget now advances to annual town meeting on March 11.
The increase stems from a combination of big-ticket investments and rising labor costs.
The budget proposes to set aside $150,000 toward an approximately $600,000 to $700,000 renovation of the recycling center in 2024, the second phase of a project that started in 2021.
The budget also proposes to raise $75,000 toward a revaluation, or review of property assessments; and $60,000 for a sustainability fund.
The town plans to conduct the revaluation in 2025 and estimates the cost at $300,000. The process will involve visits to every property in town, Harpswell’s first revaluation of its kind in 20 years.
A 2022 revaluation did not involve property visits. Instead, it was the result of an analysis of real estate sales and corresponding adjustments to the formulas the town uses to calculate assessments.
The original request for the resiliency fund was $100,000, but the Budget Advisory Committee recommended $60,000 in 2023 and $40,000 in 2024.
The fund will help the town prepare for the effects of climate change and reduce its carbon footprint, according to Eiane.
The budgets for the Recycling Center and Transfer Station are up $96,920, as costs rise to transport and dispose of recyclables and trash. The price of emergency vehicles is also on the rise, and the town will boost its investment in future replacements by $50,000.
Increases in salaries and wages total $83,000. A 4% increase for all employees accounts for $52,000, while additional adjustments for individual positions amount to $31,000.
“We are always looking at trying to retain the excellent staff that we have here and to position ourselves to be able to attract new people if any member decides to move on, retire, etc.,” Eiane said during her presentation of the budget at the Feb. 2 meeting.
Another $45,000 will address staffing needs for assessing and code enforcement, including the addition of a half-time, year-round position in the assessing office, which will replace a seasonal position.
Employee benefits are up $36,369, mostly because of health insurance. Labor costs are driving a $35,383 increase in the town’s contract with Mid Coast Hospital for 24/7 paramedic services and a $21,443 increase in the town’s contract with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office for shellfish wardens.
“These folks need to be competitive to retain and attract employees as well, so I think that’s a similar theme in many of the budgets that you’re looking at,” Eiane said.
The town’s contribution to the Harpswell Community Broadcasting Corp. is up by $23,580, or 36.8%, to $87,580. The nonprofit local-access station upped its ask to cover increases in the costs of labor, energy and supplies, according to its funding request.
Like many Maine municipalities, Harpswell collects franchise fees from a cable provider in exchange for the provider’s use of public rights of way, then uses a portion of those fees to support local-access television. Comcast paid Harpswell $107,308 in franchise fees last year, according to Eiane.
The town will spend $20,000 on an upgrade to the Giant’s Stairs property this year, to improve accessibility between Ocean Street and the north end of the trail.
Another new expense is a $10,000 contribution to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, in support of its #SaveMaineLobstermen campaign to resist the implementation of federal regulations that it says would kill the industry.
The regulations aim to protect North Atlantic right whales, but lobstermen say the fishery poses minimal risk to whales. Regulators admit that they have never tied a right whale’s death to Maine lobster gear.
The town will see savings in a few areas this year. It will spend $75,000 less on major roadwork and $25,000 less to replenish an account for the replacement of “general” vehicles, such as patrol SUVs for the sheriff’s office.
The budget still calls for significant investments in both areas: $275,000 to complete a three-year reconstruction of Basin Point Road and $75,000 for the vehicles account.
The town’s debt service — payments on a half-dozen bonds — totals $620,000, down $10,000 from last year.
The budget for streetlights will drop by 40% after last year’s installation of efficient LED lights. The town projects the savings at $4,800.
Separate from the $6.94 million budget, the town is proposing to spend $124,000 in federal funds for pandemic relief.
Of the $124,000, $84,000 will go toward defibrillators for the town’s three independent fire-and-rescue agencies, $20,000 toward heating assistance, and $10,000 each for consulting on broadband and comprehensive planning.
If voters approve the $124,000, the town will have committed $320,000 of its $520,000-plus allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The budget meets the town’s goal to comply with L.D. 1, a state-established levy limit based on data about personal income and property values in a community. Municipalities can vote to override the limit, but Harpswell never has.
Select Board member Jane Covey applauded the Budget Advisory Committee and Town Treasurer Terri Gaudet for their contributions to the budget process.
“There were some unusual requests that came in, which they handled carefully, looking at all sides of the questions related to those, and I think they did a fine job in recommending to the Select Board how we go forward,” Covey said of the committee.
Harpswell’s annual town meeting will take place at Harpswell Community School at 10 a.m. on March 11.