Nearly 150 residents of Harpswell, Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham have endorsed the $52.8 million Maine School Administrative District 75 budget for the upcoming academic year.
The overwhelming approval of the district’s 6.5% budget increase occurred in a town meeting-style vote at Mt. Ararat Middle School’s Orion Performing Arts Center on Thursday, May 18. The meeting is the first step of a two-step voter approval process. Now the issue will go to a budget validation referendum on June 13.
If voters grant final approval, Harpswell would see a roughly 8.6% increase in its share of the MSAD 75 budget for the 2023-24 academic year, which may lead to a property tax hike. Harpswell’s assessment for the budget totals just over $10 million, an increase of more than $790,000 from 2022-23. The budget as a whole comes to $52,816,566, an increase of about $3.2 million 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.
At Thursday’s meeting, Orr’s Island resident and former board Chair Tyler Washburn proposed a few amendments that would have shaved 1% to 5% off certain budget items. He was backed up in a couple of instances by Topsham resident Allen Sarvinas.
Washburn said his intent was to strike a better balance between student and taxpayer needs than what the district had put forward. However, none of his proposed amendments garnered more than 10 votes.
“I cannot tell you the amount of folks that have had concerns about being able to afford their property taxes,” Washburn told fellow voters.
Outgoing Harpswell school board representative Eric Lusk voted against a handful of key articles, including total spending, for which Bowdoin representative Brandy Robertson joined him in opposition. All 12 other board members voted in favor of spending $52.8 million, as did all but six audience members, with 144 total votes in favor. Washburn abstained.
Lusk criticized state government for failing to adequately boost its contribution to the district to match inflation.
“The state of Maine did not do us any favors in terms of how much they gave us,” Lusk told the audience.
Under the proposed budget, the district estimates teacher salaries would 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 would receive similar increases. Health insurance premiums would go up 5.8%.
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 nearly $125,500 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 Lusk, Robertson and Bowdoin representative Kimberly Totten. Three of Harpswell’s four representatives voted in favor.
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 its ability to pay.
Harpswell has the lowest enrollment of the four towns, with about 14.2% 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 about 34.8% of the local assessment for all four towns, second only to Topsham at nearly 38.8%. Bowdoin and Bowdoinham pay roughly 13.2% and 13.3%, 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 about $10.8 million for Topsham, $5.4 million for Bowdoin and $4.4 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 1.3% increase in state funds.
At 8.6%, Harpswell will see the lowest increase in local assessment, by percentage. Bowdoin, Bowdoinham and Topsham will see increases of 12.4%, 14.9% and 11.6%, respectively.
The impact of the increase in Harpswell’s assessment on its property tax rate is not yet clear. Town Administrator Kristi Eiane has said the rate is “likely” to go up from $5.90 to “something near $6.16,” for an increase of 26 cents or 4.4%.
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.