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Last-minute South Portland deal saves $2.1M in stimulus funds for Long Creek watershed work

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Last-minute South Portland deal saves $2.1M in stimulus funds for Long Creek watershed work

SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council held a special meeting on Monday night to spend $580,000 on improvements along Philbrook Avenue.

The allocation is intended to preserve $2.1 million in federal stimulus money from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The stimulus money is meant to begin implementing the Long Creek Watershed Management Plan, which has been designed by private and public stakeholders in Long Creek watershed. That funding, however, comes with the caveat that projects must be underway by the middle of June.

City Manager Jim Gailey said South Portland offered to front the $580,000 for the four watershed communities since the majority of the watershed is in South Portland and the Philbrook Avenue project would have to be done regardless. 

The amount being fronted by the city is equal the grant portion of the stimulus funds, while the remaining $1.5 million will be administered by the DEP as a no-interest loan. That won't be available until the four watershed communities, including Portland, Scarborough and Westbrook, sign off on an inter-local agreement establishing a Long Creek Watershed Management District to oversee the plan's implementation.

That agreement, however, may not be finalized until August – well after the June 17 shovel-ready deadline. 

Although passed by a unanimous vote, the proposal was not without its skeptics.

Councilor Jim Soule, a frequent critic of state government, was cynical the state would live up to its promise of reimbursing the money, noting its unfulfilled commitment to fund 55 percent of education costs. But Soule seemed comforted by the fact that the state was spending federal money, not its own.

"If it were their money, we wouldn't get it," he said. 

City Finance Director Greg L'Heureux said that while the city is committed to fronting the money, it is highly likely the city will receive the first installment of the stimulus funds before getting the first invoice for the road project.

"We won't have to spent a cent we'll have to worry about," he said. "It's even better than we thought it would be."

The Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District, which along with South Portland as been central in the Long Creek planning efforts, will act as the go-between for the stimulus funds, which are being funneled through the Municipal Bond Bank's Revolving Loan Fund. South Portland's charter prohibits the direct use of the bond bank,
since all bond packages must be put out to a competitive public bid.

Tamara Lee Pinard, of the conservation district, said she expects to sign a construction contract for the project on Monday, two days before the start deadline. The project, which will upgrade six storm-water catch basins to store and treat the first inch of runoff for 24 to 48 hours from 2.2 acres of impervious surface, will take four weeks to complete and is not expected to impact traffic.  

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