Fee increases, layoffs part of Portland's proposed 2011 budget

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PORTLAND — The city Finance Committee began reviewing a proposed $196 million municipal budget proposal Tuesday evening.

The package includes the elimination of the city’s equal opportunity and multi-cultural director, new fees for credit and debit card use and a change in the price and color of trash bags.

City Manager Joe Gray’s proposal for fiscal year 2011 is $7 million more than the 2010 budget, and would increase property taxes 12 cents per $1,000 of valuation. The current tax rate is $17.74.

The Finance Committee, a subcommittee of the City Council, was provided with an overview of changes Gray wants to make in 2011. Along with eliminating funding for Fourth of July fireworks, increasing the cost of trash bags, eliminating 40 jobs and closing three neighborhood library branches, the committee learned about other changes that have not previously received much attention.

City trash bag prices would increase 25 cents for small bags and 50 cents for large ones. But starting July 1, the bags would also be a different color. The change is meant to prevent people and businesses from stockpiling bags at the current price – something city Finance Director Ellen Sanborn said happened when bag prices were increased two years ago.

People with bags left over after July 1 will have to take part in a trash bag exchange program.

While the city manager’s budget proposal calls for eliminating 40 positions, 25 of which are currently filled, several positions are also being created in 2011 so the net change in full-time employees would be 12.6. Many of the new positions will be paid for with grant money.

One of the positions on the chopping block is the job currently held by Rachel Talbot Ross, the city’s director of equal opportunity and multicultural affairs. Gray is proposing to replace the position with a part-time community outreach coordinator. The responsibility of making sure the city complies with equal opportunity employer standards would fall to the Human Resources Department.

Several residents have written letters to the council requesting that Ross’ job be spared, and church representatives and leaders of cultural organizations spoke against the proposed job elimination Tuesday.

Councilor Jill Duson, chairwoman of the Finance Committee, expressed concern, too.

“I have some discomfort with the loss of that position, both function-wise and that particular employee,” Duson said. “Without that employee (City Hall) does not look very diverse.”

Ross is the only member of a minority in an executive position within the city besides Police Chief James Craig. The city lost its other minority executive, Edgar Anderson, when he resigned from his post as Human Resources director last fall.

Among proposed fee increases and new fees, snow impound fees are scheduled to go from $25 to $35. The city is also planning to eliminate the parking ticket forgiveness program and free parking at city garages in order to save $640,000.

The city is also proposing instituting a fee on incoming faxes of $2 and charging people for using debit and credit cards on transactions at City Hall. Finance Director Ellen Sanborn said she did not know what those fees would be, but research has shown that standard charges are $3.95 for debit cards and 2.4 percent to 5 percent for credit cards.

The Portland Public Library did not ask for an increase in funding from the city this year, and is proposing closing the Reiche, Riverton and Munjoy Hill library branches. While sure to be controversial in those neighborhoods, library Director Steve Podgajny said the branches are unsustainable.

“We are absolutely committed to a fundamental shift,” he said.

The budget proposal, along with an introduction from Gray, is available on the city Web site, portlandmaine.gov.

The Finance Committee is scheduled to continue budget deliberations Thursday, April 8, at 5:30 p.m. in room 209 at City Hall.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net