Bond for Cumberland County Civic Center repairs goes to voters

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PORTLAND — Voters in November will be asked to borrow $33 million for repairs to the 35-year-old Cumberland County Civic Center.

Cumberland County commissioners voted 2-1 Monday evening to send the bond question to voters. Commissioners James Cloutier and Richard Feeney voted in favor; Commissioner Susan Witonis was opposed.

The project would include upgrades to restrooms, new seats, a new facade, an improved vendor area, an improved loading dock and handicapped accessibility.

The bond would also make renovations requested by the Portland Pirates hockey team, including the addition of higher-priced club seats and improvements to locker rooms. A previous request for loge seating, which included refrigerators and other amenities, was declined.

The team has agreed to a two-year extension of its lease, pending approval of the bond. If the bond is approved, the Pirates would review possibly extending the lease for eight years.

“Cumberland County is a very soundly operated agency,” Cloutier said. “We have been very prudent and careful with taxpayers’ funds.”

He emphasized the benefits of building when construction costs and bond interest rates are low.

“Just like you don’t want to buy a house at the top of the market, you don’t want to build a building at the top of the market,” Cloutier said.

The county has estimated that a 25-year bond at an interest rate of 4.5 percent would accumulate $22.1 million in interest, bringing the total cost of the project to $54.3 million.

The immediate impact would be a tax increase for communities in Cumberland County, including raising estimated additional tax revenue of $228,000 in Portland, $107,000 in South Portland, $102,000 in Scarborough, $61,000 in Falmouth, $61,000 in Brunswick, $51,000 in Cape Elizabeth, $45,000 in Yarmouth and $43,000 in Freeport.

“There are a lot of people from my communities that do not have jobs,” said Witonis, who represents many of the rural towns in the county, including the Lakes Region and North Yarmouth, Pownal and Harpswell. “I cannot consciously support sending this to a referendum.”

During a brief public hearing, county residents spoke on both sides of the argument.

“Bond rates are very low, construction costs are very low,” said Carlton Winslow, who said he owns 12 buildings in Cumberland County. “I think now is the time to do it.”

However, others were staunchly opposed to making the improvements when the country was in the midst of a debt crisis.

“This is just simply not the time for more debt,” said South Portland attorney Dave Canarie. “Even if the case is compelling, the timing simply isn’t right.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

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