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South Portland City Council opts for tax increase

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South Portland City Council opts for tax increase

SOUTH PORTLAND — A firefighter, a police officer and raises for nonunion employees have been added back into the proposed fiscal 2011 municipal budget.

The City Council decided to restore more than $180,000 in proposed cuts, which may increase the local tax rate by more than 1 percent, after a tense, four-hour budget workshop on Wednesday night that revived the debate over the council's health insurance plan.

A majority of councilors also appeared to support the school budget, which many described as a "zero percent" budget, even though it calls for a 1.5 percent tax increase.

While a more than a dozen people spoke in support of the school budget, Councilor Rosemarie DeAngelis said she was speaking for seniors, the poor, unemployed, disabled and single parents.  

"There is a huge percentage of our population that is not represented tonight, so I will be their voice," she said.

DeAngelis said it was "unconscionable" for the School Board to eliminate the jobs of 25 teachers, coaches and music instructors without eliminating one administrator. Cutting an administrator would restore several other positions that directly support students, she said.

"(Administrators) are not the worker bees, they're the queen bees," she said. "We don't need that many queen bees."

DeAngelis, a South Portland High School teacher from 1996-2003, also said it was "irresponsible" for the schools skip maintenance at the high school and consider outsourcing custodial services, while paying an architect more than $800,000 to continue attending meetings about the high school.

Deliberations on the city budget, meanwhile, were colored by how two budget-balancing maneuvers by the state would affect local residents.

While the city is considering a tax increase of nearly 1.5 percent, the elimination of the Homestead Exemption and cuts to the Circuit Breaker program would actually increase taxes for low-income residents by about 8 percent, or about $185 a year.

City Manager Jim Gailey presented the council with three options for reinstating cuts. A 1 percent increase adds a firefighter and patrolman for seven months, a deputy human resource director, and a $39,000 cost-of-living adjustment for 91 non-union employees, who unlike unionized workers, did not get raises this year.

A 1.25 percent tax increase scenario adds $4,000 for dog waste bags for city parks and longer employment periods for police and fire.

A 1.5 percent increase would preserve a currently vacant senior park maintenance job, which includes a winter plow route.

The most heated exchanges of the night came when DeAngelis renewed her call for the council to eliminate its own health insurance benefit, which currently costs the city $66,000 for five councilors and their families.

The debate largely centered on old themes, with supporters saying the perk is needed to recruit and retain good councilors, while others argued the benefit is not equitable for councilors who do not – or cannot – enroll in the coverage.

Councilors who do not have health insurance through the city receive a $3,000 stipend, while those with family coverage can receive as much as $11,000 in compensation, DeAngelis said.

"There is a gross inequity that sits up here," she said, prefacing her remarks by quoting Mayor Tom Coward as previously saying councilors need to make budget decisions based on what's best for the city. "With one stroke of the pen, we could equalize our compensation."

Councilor Tom Blake said eliminating the benefit at a budget workshop would be "rash," while Coward accused DeAngelis of mischaracterizing the benefit.

"Framing this as a gross inequity is inaccurate and unfair," Coward said. "It's available to everyone."

"Not me," DeAngelis shot back, saying there is a personal reason she could not be covered by the city and must pay $7,000 a year for her coverage.

The issue of equity returned later in the budget deliberations, when Councilor Jim Hughes and Coward advocated for a 1.5 percent tax increase, similar to the increase being sought by the schools.

Blake walked back on his calls to produce a budget that did not increase taxes, noting that if all of the councilor's ideas at the budget guidance meeting at the beginning of the year were averaged, the increase would be closer to 1 percent.

While many councilors looked to limit the tax increase because of the effect the state cuts would have on tax bills, Coward pushed back on that notion saying those actions are beyond the city's control.

"People cut and push down the line and we end up cutting things like street maintenance because the governor made a promise (to not increase taxes) that he never should have made," the mayor said.

If the municipal and school budgets pass in their present form, the local tax rate could increase by about 19 cents per $1,000 of valuation.

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