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South Portland draft budget includes deep cuts in fire, police departments

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South Portland draft budget includes deep cuts in fire, police departments

SOUTH PORTLAND — More than $250,000 in public safety cuts are part of the city manager's preliminary proposal to reduce the budget by $1.3 million.

The Fire Department faces the biggest cut of $150,000, while the Police Department is slated for $105,000 in reductions.

The depth of service cuts prompted the mayor on Monday to call for a tax increase. Two city councilors want to consider cutting the council health-care benefit, which last year cost taxpayers more than $70,000.

The cuts, which were softened only by using $250,000 in surplus funds, are proposed to meet a City Council directive to City Manager Jim Gailey to produce a budget that does not increase taxes.

The budget presented to the council at a Feb. 22 workshop is still a work in progress, Gailey said. A formal budget presentation is not scheduled until March 15.

After an April 3 public hearing, the council will hold budget workshops throughout the month of April.

Faced with significant losses in revenues and increased operating costs, Gailey said he needed to present a budget that was more than $1.3 million smaller than the current budget of $27.5 million to reach the council's budget goal.

Reaching that goal requires a drastic reduction in services, Gailey said.

"It's been an extremely difficult budget," Gailey said. "These cuts will hamper services and programs being offered."

The budget proposal eliminates 7.75 positions that are vacant because of a hiring freeze. Jobs that may go unfilled include two firefighters, a police officer, a detective, a senior park maintenance worker, a recreation coordinator, a part-time custodian, a part-time librarian and a reduction in hours for the children's librarian.

Another 10  non-vacant positions, which were not detailed Monday night, may also be on the chopping block, along with a variety of other budget reductions the council could consider in lieu of Gailey's proposal. 

Meanwhile, the city, known regionally for its snow-plowing prowess, could also move away from its "black road" standard by no longer pre-treating city streets before storms and using less road salt.

Gailey also proposed the city move the Planning and Development offices, which rent space at 62 E St. for $45,000 a year, into the former Hamlin School on Ocean Street. Gailey said the School Department has agreed to vacate that building, which is used for special education programs.

While councilors generally supported the proposed reductions, many questioned cutting public safety and the proposed elimination of a cross-town bus route, which would save more than $46,000.

Cuts to the Fire Department include eliminating the Risk Watch Program, where firefighters teach elementary school children about fire safety; $20,000 by eliminating overtime caused by sick leave; $15,000 by reducing the number of trucks that respond to alarms, and $7,500 by closing the Engine 6 Call Company and moving it to the Cash Corner Fire Station.

Another $96,000 would be saved by not filling two vacant positions. While the Fire Department would maintain full staffing during the evening, the day staff would be reduced from 13 firefighters to 12.

"I don't want to see us getting to where we hurt our core responsibilities, which to me is fire and police," Councilor Jim Hughes said.

Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said the department has become more reliant on its mutual aid agreement with Portland, which for the first time made more trips last year to South Portland than South Portland made to Portland.

Meanwhile, Guimond and Deputy Fire Chief Miles Haskell have had to personally respond to more emergency calls.

Next year's budget is being pinched by significant revenue losses, including $300,000 in excise tax revenue because Enterprise Rent-A-Car no longer registers its vehicles in the city, $215,000 in state revenue sharing and $103,000 in Homestead exemptions.

In addition to a 30 percent increase in fuel costs, he city is also faced with a nearly 10 percent increase in health-care costs, prompting Councilors Patty Smith and Rosemarie DeAngelis to consider eliminating the council's health benefit – a proposal councilors rejected last year.

Neither Smith nor DeAngelis receives the health benefit.

"It's pretty hard to look in the mirror and not bring it up," Smith said.

DeAngelis said the council could possibly reinstate a police officer or firefighter by eliminating council health insurance. 

"(Health insurance) not a service; it's a benefit," she said. "It's (a benefit) that is not equitable across the council and it's one we can do without."

Savings of $6,000 is also being eyed by eliminating the summer concert series in Mill Creek Park, while $8,000 in savings is proposed by no longer offering dog waste collection bags at city parks and Willard Beach.

Although he questioned cutting the Risk Watch program that he helped create, Councilor Tom Blake, a former firefighter, said he still strongly supports a budget that does not increase taxes.

Mayor Tom Coward, however, argued that the council should reconsider its budget guidance and consider raising taxes. Coward said cutting services the city will ultimately have to replace is "false economy."

"I'm not willing to cripple the city to say I helped keep taxes level," Coward said. "People should keep in mind what this city is all about. This is not an exercise in political posturing."

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