SOUTHWEST HARBOR — How to pay for a new playground here is still up in the air, though selectmen are hoping to include the project in the coming year’s budget.
Town Manager Don Lagrange said Monday that while the town indeed needs a safe playground, “the money should come from the school, but the school wants to dump it on the municipality.”
The equipment on the existing playground is 27-years-old and in major need of replacement, school Principal Rhonda Fortin told selectmen in September. The school began fundraising in 2016 and has collected about $32,300. Since then, school officials have learned that there are issues with drainage, and a retaining wall must be replaced, she said.
Lagrange said that the town is “happy to give the money” once officials receive more information about the costs involved and the property lines of the location. The current playground is located between the outdoor basketball court at Harbor House and the school, but the committee also has considered moving the playground to the school’s outdoor basketball area near the entrance to the gymnasium and cafeteria.
Selectmen voted last week to seek legal advice on whether the town can borrow from its unassigned fund balance to pay for the playground, as they had decided to do during budget meetings.
Since the budget meeting, though, Lagrange alerted the selectmen to a town policy stating that the unassigned fund balance can only drop below 20 percent of the budget as a last resort.
Selectman Dan Norwood said the playground doesn’t qualify as such, and suggested it instead be presented to the public as a separate warrant article.
The undesignated fund balance already is below the set mark, given the town’s recent purchase of the Hook property.
Selectmen are still debating the funding mechanism and, subsequently, how to word the article before it goes on the ballot, but the project is likely to cost taxpayers $300,000.
This would be a one-time expense, because the School Board has created a reserve fund for the playground’s maintenance and future reconstruction.
Ingrid Kachmar, who has been serving on the School Board for 10 years, suggested appropriating money from the debt service toward a repayment plan. In three years, she said, $261,000 will be made available, which could be used to pay off the playground loan.
Selectman Chad Terry said that as far as he is concerned, the playground could qualify as a last resort “because it’s my children that are playing on that playground and that could get hurt on that playground right now.”
At the end of the day, he said, it’s all taxpayers’ money, anyway.
Kachmar said the playground is communal and doesn’t serve only the school. She said the school budget has to be presented in a format that is dictated by the state, so putting the playground project out for a public vote in a standalone warrant “is a much more transparent way of funding it.”
Selectmen are expected to decide the funding question at their Feb. 13 meeting.