NEWPORT – Newport selectmen rapidly reacted to SAD 48 Superintendent William Braun’s announcement Wednesday that there will be an $800,000 to $1 million shortfall this year in the school district funding.
The board approved more than $99,000 in cuts from the municipal budget that will be voted on at the March 1 town meeting.
“There is only one bucket the school board can go to bail them out,” said Town Manager James Ricker. “The town’s.”
At their regular meeting Wednesday night, despite the fact that the town’s budget had already been approved and town reports printed, Newport selectmen agreed to deep cuts suggested by Ricker, saying they were acting responsibly for taxpayers in light of state and school funding crises.
The cuts are: $14,318 from the police department; $3,000 from the library; $25,000 from the road construction and paving account; $26,815 from public works; $5,000 from recreation; and the $25,000 purchase price of the historic Sebasticook Grange Hall.
In addition, the board voted not to proceed with the planned building of a new public works garage, which had just received site approval from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection on Tuesday.
With these changes, Ricker said the 2003 budget would vary from the 2002 budget by only $400. Two planned hirings will not take place and a half-time police officer position that was to be shared with SAD 48 will not be funded.
An emergency budget committee meeting will be called for next week to review the cuts.
With tax collections at 90 percent, Chairman Al Worden commented: “We’re in pretty good shape as a town. But looking ahead, it is much wiser to take these steps.”
Ricker was particularly grieved to drop the Grange Hall purchase, a project he had initiated and worked hard to gain support for. The Maine State Grange had given the town first dibs on the sale but will now likely place the property for public sale.
“But in reality, can I justify buying a grange hall and laying people off? No. I can’t,” Ricker said.
There was a bit of good news at Wednesday’s meeting, however, when selectmen accepted a deal offered by the Maine Department of Transportation, which is replacing Durham Bridge this fall. The bridge crosses Stetson Stream, which enters Sebasticook Lake on the northeastern shore.
For more than a year, Newport has been attempting to get the state to pay for guardrails that would extend beyond the bridge. The state has repeatedly refused.
But Wendell Harriman, the DOT resident engineer, brought a deal to the table that the selectmen found too enticing to refuse. In exchange for closing the bridge entirely for two weeks, likely in early October, the DOT will pay for $40,000 worth of guardrails.
Harriman explained that the DOT will save $70,958 and nearly a month’s construction time by closing the bridge for about 14 days.
Several residents who live on either side of the bridge appeared at the hearing. Only one, dairy farmer Mark Sawyer, had a problem with the closure.
Sawyer explained that if the project was done any earlier than the end of September, it would interfere with his transportation of corn silage and hay harvests.
Sawyer’s farm is north of the bridge and his fields are south of it. “I carry 50 to 60 loads a day across the bridge during harvest,” said Sawyer.
Harriman said beginning work in October would not hamper the project and agreed to work with Sawyer’s schedule.
Ricker said a meeting will be held this summer between the project engineers, the SAD 48 transportation department, emergency responders, Sawyer and any other affected neighbor.
Harriman said that the project will create a bridge four feet wider than the existing structure and should be completed by mid-November.