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South Portland council gives preliminary OK to school bond, charter change

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South Portland council gives preliminary OK to school bond, charter change

City receives nearly $300K in Homeland Security funds
SOUTH PORTLAND — With three members absent, the City Council on Monday night gave initial approval to a $5.83 million bond referendum to fund renovations to the two middle schools and high schools.
A change to the City Charter that would allow the city to use the Maine Municipal Bond Bank's revolving loan program also received preliminary approval.
Final readings and hearings on both questions are set for April 5. If councilors approve, voters will have the final say on June 2.
The $5.83 million renovation bond does not include the $2.75 million in interest that would accrue over the bond's 21-year life.
The one-year renovation plan, which would be completed this summer, would fund improvements to electrical systems, fire alarms, emergency lighting and security systems at all three schools.
Colchester Drive resident Albert DiMillo said the renovation bond was ill-conceived because the city and schools have millions in reserve funds and does not need to borrow the money.
"There's no need to borrow this money," he said. "You've got the cash."
DiMillo also questioned whether the projects would carry a useful life of 21 years – a charter requirement – since the schools are pursuing a full high school renovation and possibly a consolidated middle school.
Instead, DiMillo read a list of other projects, including repairing leaky windows, fixing bathroom stalls and plumbing, leaky roofs and water damaged tiles.
School Board Vice Chairman Richard Carter said the money is needed to address immediate and critical needs for student health and safety. The upgrades, he said, would be transferable to other more elaborate renovation projects, should they ever be approved.
"Nothing we would do with this bond would have to be undone with a full renovation," Carter said.
Carter said that the electrical upgrades are needed at the high school so that faculty members don't have to turn off other equipment to have enough power to run the computers. Security upgrades are needed at the high school to help monitor the school's 26 entrances, he said.
Meanwhile, Memorial Middle School doesn't have a sprinkler system, Carter said.
"Most of us were shocked to find out we had a middle school without a sprinkler system," he said. "We wouldn't allow a business to be open without a sprinkler system, but we have kids going to school every day without one."
Councilor Tom Coward supported the scope of the repairs, arguing they would meet the charter requirement for a 21-year lifespan. That future plans may be in the works for a consolidated middle school doesn't preclude the city from issuing a bond, he said.
Councilor Jim Soule said the School Department still hasn't proven to him that money contained the $787 billion stimulus package would be available for school construction. He urged the schools to contact both Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins with the inquiry.
Meanwhile, school Business Manager Polly Ward said there may be
construction funds available through the federal stimulus, but the
administration won't know for sure for several weeks. Currently, the only
confirmed funds are in the form of Title I funds for economically
disadvantaged students and special education funds.
Carter said that if stimulus funds become available, the district will
not borrow the entire $5.83 million, noting that in 2002 the city
approved a $28.6 million bond to build new elementary schools; the
district only borrowed the $18 million it needed.
The bond request comes in the wake of a report from a visiting accreditation committee that cited the "ruinous effects" of the high school facility. The committee was discouraged by the community's resounding defeat of a $56.6 million bond floated in 2007 to essentially rebuild the school.
Other business
The council also gave initial approval to a charter change that would allow the city, with a super-majority vote of the council, to use the Municipal Bond Bank's revolving loan fund.
City Manager Jim Gailey said South Portland is eligible for nearly $3 million in stimulus funds to clean up the Long Creek watershed. However, the state is funneling that money through the revolving loan program, which an existing charter provision prohibits the city from using.
The council also accepted a nearly $300,000 grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security; $75,000 will be spent on public safety equipment, $65,000 on communications equipment, $40,000 for an incident command vehicle, $30,000 for training and $7,000 for emergency management expenses.
Another $80,000 in salaries and benefits is budgeted for an emergency management director, a position vacant since Jeff Temple left in August to take a post with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Since then, Fire Chief Kevin Guimond has been filling in as the coordinator.

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