Harpswell will see an 8.56% increase in its share of the Maine School Administrative District 75 budget, which may lead to a property tax hike.
Harpswell’s assessment for the district’s 2023-24 budget totals $10,027,134, an increase of $790,342 from 2022-23. The budget as a whole comes to $52,816,566, an increase of $3,224,791 or 6.5%.
Factors in the increase include the first principal payment on a $9 million bond for renovations at the middle school and paving at several locations, including Harpswell Community School. The payment adds more than $900,000 to the budget.
The district estimates that teacher salaries will go up an average of 5.5%, in accordance with their contract. Salaries for administrators and support staff align to the teachers’ contract, so they will receive similar increases. Health insurance premiums will go up 5.81%.
Together, salaries and benefits account for more than 70% of the district’s expenses, according to budget documents.
Other factors include inflation in the cost of food and fuel, the replacement of four buses and purchase of three passenger vans, and a $125,468 hike in the district’s share of the budget for Region 10 Technical High School.
The MSAD 75 Board of Directors approved the budget in a 9-3 vote on April 13. The no votes were cast by Harpswell representative Eric Lusk and Bowdoin representatives Brandy Robertson and Kimberly Totten. Three of Harpswell’s four representatives voted in favor.
During a hearing before the vote, Orr’s Island resident and former board Chair Tyler Washburn said he does not think the budget is fiscally responsible.
“Going forward, seniors, working families, deserve at least a little bit of a freeze, a little bit of a pause,” Washburn said.
Each town’s “local assessment” — the amount the town must raise from property taxes to fund the budget — is determined by a formula that accounts for the number of students from the town and the town’s ability to pay.
Harpswell has the lowest enrollment of the four towns, with 14.17% of the district’s students, but the highest property values, with 55.5% of the total property valuation of all four towns.
As a result, Harpswell pays 34.84% of the local assessment for all four towns, second only to Topsham at 38.76%. Bowdoin and Bowdoinham pay 13.15% and 13.26%, respectively.
Despite its relatively high share of the budget, Harpswell has the lowest tax rate in the district — less than half of any other town’s. Harpswell property owners pay a tax of $5.90 per $1,000 of valuation. Bowdoin’s tax rate is $16.90, Bowdoinham’s $18.09 and Topsham’s $14.42.
The latter three towns receive millions of dollars from the state to reduce their local assessments, but Harpswell’s larger tax base makes it ineligible for those subsidies.
Harpswell will get $25,390 from the state this year, in comparison to $10.77 million for Topsham, $5.43 million for Bowdoin and $4.37 million for Bowdoinham.
But Harpswell’s lack of state help also means it sees less fluctuation in its local assessment when the burden of a budget increase falls on the towns — as it will this year, with a 6.5% increase in expenses and just a 1.29% increase in state funds.
At 8.56%, Harpswell will see the lowest increase in local assessment, by percentage. Bowdoin, Bowdoinham and Topsham will see increases of 12.37%, 14.94% and 11.56%, respectively.
The impact of the increase in Harpswell’s assessment on its property tax rate is not yet clear. Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said the rate is “likely” to go up from $5.90 to “something near $6.16,” for an increase of 26 cents or 4.41%.
The Harpswell Select Board set the tax rate in August last year. While the MSAD 75 assessment is the biggest factor, the rate is also affected by the municipal budget, the county tax, growth of the tax base from development, and other considerations.
An initial draft of the MSAD 75 budget would have cut a half-time literacy teacher from the Harpswell Community School faculty and transferred responsibilities for literacy instruction to the principal, who would serve as principal 80% of the time and as a teacher 20% of the time.
During a March 16 budget forum at Harpswell Community School, parents and teachers urged the MSAD 75 Finance Committee to reconsider those changes.
MSAD 75 Business Manager Jennifer Gagnon said the Finance Committee restored the literacy position to the budget. Instead of literacy instruction, the principal will take on new responsibilities for professional development.
The budget presentation at the forum included a list of “requests for new resources” that the district declined. The requests include seven teaching positions, a resource officer for the middle school, a substance use counselor or counselors, and an assistant supervisor of transportation.
The budget now heads to voters in a two-step process: a town meeting-style vote at Mt. Ararat Middle School’s Orion Performing Arts Center at 6:30 p.m. on May 18, then a budget validation referendum on June 13.