Voters balked at the $800,000 price to buy back the Harpswell Coastal Academy campus, overwhelmingly opposing the purchase at town meeting on Saturday, March 11.
Harpswell’s first in-person annual town meeting since 2019 attracted 281 voters to the Harpswell Community School gym. The question of whether to buy back the Coastal Academy property drew the most attention.
Voters questioned the cost — more than five times the $150,000 sale price from the town to HCA in 2015 — and the absence of a plan for the property.
Harpswell Coastal Academy officials said the decade-old charter school needs about $800,000 to cover its obligations as it prepares to close at the end of the academic year. The state did not renew the school’s charter, forcing the closure.
As a condition of the 2015 sale, HCA had to offer the property back to the town. The 59-year-old building sits on 7-plus acres at 9 Ash Point Road. It was previously West Harpswell School, a K-5 public school that closed in 2011.
“I don’t see the benefit of owning this,” said Ed Robinson, of Orr’s Island. “If, in fact, it’s worth more than the $800,000, let the school sell it themselves, rather than the town get themselves into an ownership situation, ongoing maintenance, and all the potential pitfalls that will follow. My personal view is that this is not a good financial decision for the taxpayers of this town.”
HCA’s interim head of school, Mel Christensen Fletcher, said the institution will continue to incur expenses after it closes at the end of June. For example, HCA needs to pay back federal grants for pandemic relief and pay teachers through the end of their contracts.
“We recognize that it ($800,000) is much higher than the price we paid 10 years ago, but it is what we need to do right by our school community,” Christensen Fletcher said. “We understand that’s a complicated decision for you all to make, but we wanted you to have that information and know that we do not make any profit off of this.”
The obligations also include more than $250,000 of debt, according to Cynthia Shelmerdine, chair of the HCA Board of Directors.
Jim Laughren, of Harpswell Neck, called it “somewhat stunning that an organization which has a laudable mission, and has certainly accomplished many good things, has also been apparently financially quite mismanaged, and it certainly is not up to the taxpayers of Harpswell to bail them out.”
“There are other options,” Laughren said, including bankruptcy or a sale to a third party.
Some speakers expressed concern about what a private developer might do with the property.
“We run a risk of not purchasing this property because someone could come in, buy it up, and put in something that we all regret,” said Amy Haible, a member of the Planning Board. “However, the likelihood of that happening is probably pretty minimal right now.”
In response to a question about a hypothetical developer’s options for the property, Town Planner Mark Eyerman said current zoning would allow about four residential units or various nonresidential uses.
The vote against the purchase was nearly unanimous.
Shelmerdine, the chair of HCA’s board, said the school would list the property for sale. She rejected comments about financial mismanagement.
The primary factor behind the school’s financial needs is not mismanagement, but pandemic-related enrollment declines, Shelmerdine said in an email. The state funds charter schools based on enrollment.
“Fewer students, fewer dollars, but the costs of running the school do not go down proportionately,” Shelmerdine said.
Shelmerdine said that HCA understands the price “seemed high to the town.”
“On the other hand, we also have to navigate potential concerns that offering the property to the town so far below estimated market value would itself constitute fiscal mismanagement,” she said.
“We are sorry not to be selling the property back to Harpswell, but that was up to the town, and the process has now played out,” Shelmerdine added.
Among the 67 items on the agenda, only two others provoked debate.
A proposal to budget an additional $135,000 for the construction of a boat launch at Mitchell Field passed easily after a discussion focusing on the merits of borrowing vs. saving for major projects.
The boat launch will cost about $850,000. The town and the state had already agreed to spend $357,250 each. Inflation has driven estimates higher, necessitating the additional funds.
A proposal to start a new Sustainability Plan Implementation Reserve Account and make an initial deposit of $60,000 met with concern from a couple of residents, but passed with only scattered no votes.
The fund will help the town pursue a plan to reduce its carbon footprint and prepare for the impacts of climate change. For example, the town might spend money to protect low-lying roads against sea level rise.
Voters cut $150,000 from the 2023 budget when they bypassed a proposal to set aside those funds for a second phase of improvements to the recycling center.
The move had the blessing of Chuck Perow, the manager of the Recycling Center and Transfer Station. Perow said he does not expect the project to start until the 2025 construction season, which means the town has two more years to fund the project.
The project is estimated to cost $700,000. The town has set aside $429,844 to date.
The HCA vote and the $150,000 cut allowed the town to comply with the L.D. 1 levy limit, a state cap based on data about personal income and property values in a community. Municipalities can vote to override the limit, but Harpswell never has.
The final 2023 municipal budget totals $6,928,535, an increase of $591,196 or 9.33% over the 2022 figure.
Besides the budget, voters approved amendments to three town ordinances, accepted an easement that will allow firefighters to use a dry hydrant on private property on Neil’s Point Road, and OK’d routine questions granting the town various administrative powers.