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Meeting to focus on funding for Portland's school-based community centers

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Meeting to focus on funding for Portland's school-based community centers

PORTLAND — The city and school finance committees will meet on Aug. 11 to discuss funding for Portland's four community centers.

Questions are typically raised about funding for school-based community centers around budget time when city, school and library officials finalize spending. 

It currently costs about $1.8 million to operate community centers at the Reiche, Riverton, East End, and Peaks Island elementary schools. Community centers at Reiche and Riverton account for $1.4 million of that cost, since they have pools and public health centers. 

City Councilor John Anton said funding for the community centers is spread through several budgets, making it difficult to make well-informed, strategic decisions about funding and operations around budget times. 

"In terms of operations, no one 'owns' the community centers," Anton said. 

In addition to the city and school uses, the Portland Public Library, which is run by a board of trustees, also uses school-based community centers. These organizations frequently clash around budget time. 

"These things have benefits and how are we going to make sure that these benefits are being recognized and appropriately budgeted for, and not getting caught in turf wars between different organizational entities that are all common funded by the taxpayers?," Anton said. "I subscribe to the 'one city, one budget' philosophy."

Recent clashes have centered around library funding. Previous budgets have threatened to close the Reiche branch and produced a successful community effort to keep it open. 

Anton said that without a centralized budget and services break-down of community centers as a whole, it is difficult to find operational efficiencies that could reduce costs and save programs. 

"We have sunk a lot of capital into these community centers and they're not getting funded in a way that reflects the value we gave them when we created them," he said. 

The city and School Department have drafted a "Plan for Sustainable Educational Quality in Portland," which is designed to encourage and measure efficiencies of consolidating certain services used by both entities. One of those areas of consolidation is having city workers service the school's heating and air conditioning services. 

But some School Committee members have question whether the cost, and in the case of community centers, the revenue, is equitably distributed. Neither School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton nor school finance Chairwoman Kate Snyder could be immediately reached for comment. 

The latest version of the sustainability report addresses community centers, saying the city uses and manages the school-based community centers. The city is not billed for regular custodial services, maintenance, utility services or other costs associated with maintaining a high-traffic community center. The report indicates that a memorandum of understanding, outlining responsibilities and cost- and revenue-sharing, is needed. 

The joint finance committee will review a list of services and how the costs are distributed at their Aug. 11 meeting, which starts at 4 p.m. in room 24 at Portland City Hall.

Assistant City Manager Anita LaChance said detailing the costs to each body is difficult, because they are spread out over several different budgets. Pinning down utility costs is especially difficult, since the community centers are not separately metered.

A spread sheet provided by LaChance said the School Department is currently paying estimated utility costs of $44,000 and $58,000, respectively, at Riverton and Reiche, both of which have indoor pools. Utility costs at the East End School are estimated at $32,000. The schools do not pay utility costs for the Peak's Island community center. 

Meanwhile, LaChance said that the city expects to bring in about $300,000 in revenues from recreation and aquatics programs at the community centers. 

Anton said he hopes that bringing the costs and functions of the community centers into one document will allow proponents to be a champion for the centers during budget discussions, which are expected to become increasingly difficult. It will also allow councilors to be less reactionary and more strategic in their decisions, he said.

"Everything is a target in the upcoming budget," Anton said. "I just want to make sure that if we cut something, we cut it understanding its true value."  

Randy Billings can be reached at 718-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net