Few pleased with South Portland city, school budgets

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Most speakers at a City Council budget hearing Wednesday said higher taxes are necessary to preserve city and school services.

Despite that, some councilors expressed displeasure with the School Board’s proposed spending plan.

“Are we going up in an amount that is sufficient to keep us moving forward?” former School Board member Jeffrey Selser asked councilors, while objecting to a process where councilors set guidelines for municipal and school budgets based on property tax increases.

The combined fiscal 2014 budgets, including the city share of Cumberland County operations, amount to $74 million, with more than $57 million needed from property taxes.

The budgets would add 35 cents to the current city property tax rate of $16.50 per $1,000 of assessed vale. The increase also reflects debt service on the $41 million high school renovation bond passed by voters in 2010.

Given a council recommendation on Feb. 27 to not exceed a tax increase of 6 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value to fund the budgets, City Manager Jim Gailey and School Board President Rick Carter presented budgets trimmed from original expectations.

About 30 minutes before the hearing, School Board members grudgingly approved a $42.9 million budget seeking more than $37.1 million in property tax revenue. The current budget is funded with more than $35.2 million in property tax revenue.

“I don’t think any of us are in a position we agree with,” Carter said before the vote.

School Board members Rick Matthews and Sara Goldberg opposed the budget because it is too low. Board member Karen Callahan signalled her opposition in a workshop last week, but was unable to attend Wednesday’s meeting.

“Always being pushed around by the City Council is not my idea of doing the right thing,” Matthews said.

The $28.8 million municipal operations budget remains under discussion, with workshops coming April 8 at the Community Center and April 10 at City Hall. Mayor Tom Blake said he expects the council to vote on both budgets by May 20, and the city referendum for the school budget is expected on June 11.

After 25 minutes of public comments and 90 minutes of questions and comments from councilors, Blake said the process was on the right track. But another joint workshop will be needed in early May to re-evaluate the budgets in light of a state biennial budget that could alter spending plans for city and school operations.

In addition to Selser’s comments, other residents said the council guideline pared too many services and forced Gailey and School Superintendent Suzanne Godin into a bind before councilors actually reviewed preliminary budgets.

“There has got to be a better process – what do we prioritize in South Portland?” asked Ross Libby. “This fighting for scraps is really, really frustrating.”

Gailey’s $28.8 million budget had no changes from the one he introduced March 18. He said council guidelines forced $437,000 in spending reductions from what he anticipated to allocate before the council guideline was established.

Gone from the budget is funding of $25,000 for membership in the Greater Portland Council of Governments, more than $40,000 of funding for residential home care by the Visiting Nurses Association and Home Health Visiting Nurses, and $80,000 earmarked to pave city streets.

The proposed school budget comes close to meeting the council guideline.

The high school hockey team, which was threatened with elimination, will continue at a cost of about $34,000. But gone is $84,000 proposed for a grant writer and publicist, half a Middle School guidance counselor position, and half a position of guidance clerk at the high school. Contributions to a contingency fund were cut back to $110,000 from $150,000; the revised budget will use $875,000 in existing surplus, up from the original $800,000.

School finances and operations drew criticism from Albert DiMillo Jr., who said the proposed school budget continues a decade-long pattern of over-budgeting, mostly in salaries and benefits.

“I’m here to talk about budget math. This is a math test,” DiMillo said, noting actual school spending has averaged $1.4 million less than what was budgeted from 2004 through 2012.

DiMillo also protested the department’s practice of shifting surpluses to dedicated reserves. Godin countered it has helped pay for maintenance, and the $794,000 set aside in a technology reserve fund will pay most of the cost of buying new computers from the state for city students. The state upgrades are expected within the next two years.

DiMillo’s thoughts resonated with Councilors Jerry Jalbert, Melissa Linscott and Al Livingston, who said requests for data on actual salary expenditures were not promptly answered and their research into academic achievement in city schools showed distressing results.

Blake said those are topics for future joint workshops, and warned that changes in state budget deliberations could alter school and municipal budgets.

The state budget for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 proposed by Gov. Paul LePage could suspend revenue sharing of income and sales taxes, which would cost the city $1.8 million next year.

Godin said a change in the current plan to reimburse School Department contributions to staff retirement funds could ultimately cost the department $400,000 in state aid.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.