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Portland councilors mull school funding, Peaks Island police coverage

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Portland councilors mull school funding, Peaks Island police coverage

PORTLAND — City Councilors lauded the schools Tuesday for the effort put in to a $90 million budget proposal, despite a 1.3 percent proposed increase in spending over this year.

The police chief at Tuesday's Finance Committee meeting also presented the council with options to keep two patrol officers on Peaks Island during summer weekends. The current city budget calls for reducing patrol to one officer in the summer and adding a full-time medically trained firefighter.

During its presentation to the city Finance Committee, school officials informed councilors they found out last week that the federal government cut $600,000 from the department's Title 1 funds – twice the amount the schools were expecting to lose, according to Superintendent James C. Morse Sr.

Title 1 funds are given to schools with a large number of poor students and used to improve the learning skills of those students. Several Portland schools qualify for the funding; hardest hit by the loss are King Middle School at $224,000 and the East End Community School at $201,000. Morse said Riverton Community School and Lincoln Middle School will also be affected.

The loss of the funding could increase projected job cuts within the school system. Currently, the school budget includes elimination of 45 positions.

The council Finance Committee did not make any recommendations to the schools for reductions to the budget proposal, but did ask several questions related to funding.

Mayor Nick Mavodones asked finance staff to calculate how much would have to be cut from the total school and city budget proposals (the city side is $196 million) to increase spending by only 1 percent. The combined proposed increase from the city and schools is 1.2 percent.

To cap the increase at 1 percent, the combined budget would have to be cut by about $400,000.

"I think the public would like to see it at less than it is," Mavodones said.

Councilor Jill Duson, who chairs the Finance Committee, asked School Committee members why they recommended a budget that was nearly $250,000 more than the budget the school Finance Committee had presented to them.

The schools found out in mid-March they would receive $248,500 more in state school aid than originally expected. So they added two music teachers and six education technicians.

"We essentially spent the $248,000," School Committee member Kate Snyder said.

Duson said she had hoped the schools would have used the extra funding to offset their budget gap.

The Finance Committee will hold a public hearing on the proposed 2011 school budget April 15 at 5:30 p.m. in Room 209 at City Hall.

The committee has also scheduled a work session April 22 at 7 p.m. at City Hall to address outstanding issues with the city budget.

Police on Peaks

The Finance Committee also heard from Police Chief James Craig about funding scenarios to increase summer weekend patrols on Peaks Island. The increase would cost between about $8,600 and $11,000, depending on whether an additional officer works a regular shift or overtime.

In his 2011 budget proposal, City Manager Joe Gray proposed reducing police patrol on the island to one officer year-round, while adding a full-time firefighter trained in emergency medical services. Currently, one officer patrols the island in the off season and two are on duty during the summer months.

The Peaks Island Council, an advisory board to the City Council, requested the city increase the amount of emergency medical response personnel assigned to the island, after a couple of incidents during the past two years when islanders have had to respond to emergencies and assist because only one officer was on the island.

Gray's proposal would have an officer and a firefighter with medical training on the island at all times.

The council, however, wants two full-time medically trained officers on the island all year.

Peaks Island Councilor Mike Richards said it is not an ideal solution to have overtime officers assigned to the island, because the regular Peaks officers know the residents.

Two officers from the Police Benevolent Association opposed having one officer assigned to the island. Officer Tim Farris, president of the PBA, said single coverage put officers in danger because they would not have backup on hand.

Peaks Island averages 1.7 calls for service per week for police, fire and emergency services. There was one reported use of force by police on the island last year.

But Farris said effective community policing on the island can reduce the number of calls for service.

"When (community policing is) properly done, patrol needs cannot be measured through calls for service," he said.

The Finance Committee asked Craig to come back with a single recommendation for summer weekend patrols.

The city budget proposal for 2011 is $196 million, a $7 million increase over this year. The 1.4 percent increase would boost the property tax rate 12 cents per $1,000 assessed value.

Combined with the school proposal, the property tax rate increase would be 23 cents higher per $1,000 assessed value. The current tax rate is $17.74.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net