City Council wants deeper budget cuts in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — With complete budget proposals in hand for the fiscal 2013 municipal and school operations, city councilors on Wednesday told the School Board and city manager to find more cuts. 

The proposed $72 million general fund budget – which includes a $40.1 million school budget – would increase the property tax rate by about 3.73 percent, or 60 cents per $1,000 of property value. That’s an additional $108 per year for the median South Portland homeowner.

“I see many people just living on Social Security, where fully 50 percent of their income per year goes to pay property taxes,” Councilor Jerry Jalbert said. “I would like to look at a lower number. I know the school board and the administration has worked very hard already, but we need to get lower.”

Jalbert and others said they’d like to see a total tax increase around 3 percent, which would mean cutting just under $400,000 from the total city budget. 

School Board members, whose proposed 2.2 percent budget increase includes $35.4 million to be raised by taxes, argued that while their portion of the general fund constitutes a 50-cent increase in the property tax rate, the actual increase in school operating costs is only about 22 cents per $1,000. 

That’s because 28 cents of the proposed tax increase comes from previously approved bond payments on the high school renovation project, which is now expected to cost $39.2 million. 

“It costs more to employ people every year, and it costs more to buy things every year,” School Board member Jeff Selser said, “(so) 2.2 percent is an increase, yes, but it’s a modest increase. … (It) is what’s needed to maintain the same level of services without moving our district backward.”

City councilors didn’t seem to buy that argument. 

“Even though I understand that the public already voted for the 28 cents, it’s still going to hit them at 50 cents per $1,000,” said Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis. “I think the question of what goes on the ballot, that’s what people have to be ready to approve.

“I’m sitting here thinking, eek, this feels high,” she said. 

A few councilors also questioned the necessity of adding a curriculum director position to the school budget. The position would cost the district about $80,000 per year.

Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin argued that the position is critical to helping the district adopt new education standards required by 2014, and to continuing to developing a strong science-technology-engineering-mathematics program and the project-based learning curriculum adopted by Kaler Elementary School. 

The position was removed from the budget six years ago, Godin said. Since then, curriculum development has been done “on the backs of teachers and administrators.”

“I don’t think we’ve seen more changes this year than two years ago or six years ago,” Councilor Tom Blake said. “Why is this year different?

De Angelis said the curriculum development work could be spread out among teachers, who would be given a stipend to take on the additional work. That would be less costly, she said.

But Godin countered that the teachers are the ones asking for the curriculum director position to be added. 

City Manager Jim Gailey, whose proposed a $28.4 million municipal operations budget – a nine cent, or 1.3 percent, increase per $1,000 of property value – was mostly spared from calls to cut his budget. 

“I’m a little concerned that on the city side, we’re cut so close to the bone that our infrastructure isn’t going to propel us forward,” Mayor Patti Smith said. 

But councilors made it clear that Gailey must still make more cuts.

“It looks like we’re picking on the School Department, but we’ve already done a lot of picking on Jim Gailey, and he can tell he’s got another batch coming,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said.

On Monday, April 9, the City Council will hold its final municipal budget workshop. Then, Gailey and the School Board have until April 23, when the council and School Board meet for a joint workshop, to refine and reduce their budget lines.  

Voters will approve or reject the school budget in a May 15 referendum. If the budget is approved, the City Council will vote on the complete city budget in late May.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

Sidebar Elements

Council approves high school renovation contract

SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Wednesday awarded a $39.3 million contract to PC Construction of South Burlington, Vt., for high school renovation and construction.

PC Construction’s original bid in February was $43.2 million, nearly $4 million higher than the limit approved by voters in 2010. Since then, company representatives, project architect Harriman Associates and the High School Building Committee have met to make cuts.

Savings were found by simplifying the exterior and interior design of the building and substituting materials such as flooring, siding, counter tops and skylights with lower-cost materials. A portion of the roof originally slated to be replaced will stay intact – building committee members said it still has 12-15 years before it needs replacement.

The revised plan will maintain energy-efficient components, and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification is still within reach, although at a lower rating. 

“It certainly doesn’t affect the quality of the building,” said Ralph Baxter Jr., a former School Board member who chairs the building committee, during a School Board meeting Monday. “It makes it more cost-effective, but no less efficient.”

The council Approved the contract 6-1, over the objection of Councilor Al Livingston, who said the reductions were made too quickly. He said the less-expensive materials and projects scrapped from the bid would end up costing taxpayers more in the long run.

“Sometimes when there’s a rush to judgment, mistakes are made,” Livingston said Wednesday. “I know we want to rush to hurry up and get this thing built. But I think should have had a little more time to make sure we’ve covered everything we want to cover.”

— Mario Moretto