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South Portland mayor: Public input needed on city budget

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South Portland mayor: Public input needed on city budget

SOUTH PORTLAND — Elimination of cross-town bus service to the Maine Mall, a fire safety education program for elementary school students and dog waste bags at city parks are among the cost-cutting measures eyed in next year's budget.

City Manager Jim Gailey's proposed $27.1 million city budget would require a nearly 1 percent increase local taxes, while the school budget would increase taxes by 1.5 percent. 

Combined, both budgets would eliminate nearly 33 jobs, including 25 layoffs, all of which would come from the schools. The nearly eight city jobs proposed for elimination, half of which are in the Police and Fire departments, are vacant due to a hiring freeze.

The combined $67.1 million municipal and school budget – $52.8 million of which needs to be raised from local taxes – will be presented Monday night, April 5, followed by a public hearing.

The budget, which includes county taxes, would increase taxes by 1.29 percent, or about $657,000.

Mayor Tom Coward said he hopes residents will get involved, so the council can take their ideas and concerns into consideration during their budget workshops scheduled throughout April.

"If you get involved early, you have a better chance to influence the outcome," Coward said.

In January, the City Council directed Gailey and Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin to produce budgets that would not increase taxes.

While the council will examine the budget in the coming weeks to explore additional cuts, the School Board passed a budget on March 8 that includes a 1.5 percent increase in taxes to fund a reserve account to pay for possible renovations to the high school.

The $506,000 funding was set aside in next year's budget even though voters have yet to weigh in on a $41.9 million proposal to rebuild the high school, whose accreditation is at risk due to facility issues.

Voters in 2007 overwhelmingly defeated a $56 million plan to rebuild the high school.

Godin said the school budget meets the council's guidance of not increasing expenditures. The tax increase, 14 cents on the current tax rate of $14.70 per $1,000 valuation, is a chance for the community to support its schools, she said.

"I think it's an opportunity for the community to be forward-thinking in terms of how we are going to position ourselves to start paying for some of the major renovation and construction costs our high school and middle schools will incur," she said.

Coward said the council will hold an April 14 workshop to discuss the school budget in detail, specifically the funds for the high school reserve account.

"If we're feeling unhappy about (the school budget), they will have time to do something about that," Coward said.

Although the proposed city budget is $322,000 smaller than the current budget, a tax increase would make up for a loss of $707,000 in non-property tax revenue, most notably from excise and state revenue.

To limit the tax impact, the city proposal includes $150,000 in cuts to the Fire Department. The city would save about $96,5000 by not filling two vacant positions, which would reduce the number of firefighters during daytime. Another $20,000 would be saved by eliminating overtime cause by sick leave, and $15,000 would be saved by reducing call company responses to alarms.

Meanwhile, $10,000 would be saved by cutting the department's Risk Watch program, where firefighters go into elementary schools and teach first- and third-graders about fire safety.

In a memo to the council, the department said the program meets requirements for the Maine Learning Results and is under consideration by Education Commissioner Susan Gendron for implementation in schools across the state.

Meanwhile, the Police Department is facing $105,000 in cuts, savings that would be achieved by not filling vacancies of one officer and one detective. The move would reduce the number of officers on the street and limit the department's ability to conduct follow-up investigations.

Gailey speculated that some of the proposed cuts may be restored by the council.

"I don't think the council likes seeing the public safety cuts," he said.

Another $46,000 could be saved by eliminating the bus that runs from Pillsbury Street and Cottage Road to the Maine Mall area.

Transportation Director Tom Meyers said the cross-town bus is the least productive route. It makes 35 to 52 one-way trips a day, but accounts for only 6 percent of total ridership.

A 20 percent increase in bus fares, or 25 cents, is also being proposed, Meyers said.

Eliminating complimentary dog waste bags in city parks could save $8,000, while $20,000 in savings in the public works budget could be achieved by reducing winter storm operations.

The public hearing on the budget will take place at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 5, in the council Chambers at City Hall, 25 Cottage Road.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net