Jennings: Expect most Portland property taxes to change

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PORTLAND — Residents should expect property revaluations and continued focus on responsiveness under City Manager Jon Jennings’ second three-year contract.

“I feel very good about where we are with the city,” Jennings said Nov. 24. “It is truly one of the great honors of my career. At the municipal level you can get things done and affect people’s lives.”

On Nov. 20, city councilors approved a new three-year pact with Jennings that takes effect July 13, 2018, and expires July 12, 2021.

Jennings was hired by the city July 13, 2015, following a period of turnover that began with the Sept. 3, 2014, resignation of former City Manager Mark Rees. Former Deputy City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian and Police Chief Michael Sauschuck served as interim replacements before Jennings was hired.

Jennings has also been assistant city manager and director of economic development in South Portland, and a Cumberland town councilor. A co-founder of the Maine Red Claws minor league basketball team, Jennings was also involved in early planning for the Thompson’s Point redevelopment project.

A former scout, assistant coach and director of basketball development for the Boston Celtics, Jennings’ public sector resume includes work at the White House during the Clinton Administration, at the U.S. Department of Justice, and as director of state operations for former U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

“Having stability in the city manager’s office is crucial and Jon is the right person for the job,” Mayor Ethan Strimling said in a Nov. 16 press release. “His commitment to making government work better for the people of the city is of utmost importance and I look forward to continuing to work closely with him in the coming years.” 

Strimling and Councilors Nick Mavodones and David Brenerman negotiated the new contract, even though Strimling and Jennings have had a contentious enough relationship to make Jennings wonder if he wanted to stay. Their relationship has been better since a July 31 council workshop where both men aired complaints in public.

In the meeting, Jennings’ stance that he would be the point man for Strimling’s communications with city staff on policy questions received strong council support.

Jennings said he will continue to focus on modernizing and streamlining city operations, and sees opportunities for waterfront development, a new homeless shelter and re-imagining recreational opportunities for Portland children.

“One of the big challenges coming in I had was to provide leadership and direction for a culture change,” he said. “We have changed it to a more customer-service orientation.”

In his three years, Jennings has shifted department functions while stewarding an Economic Opportunity Office, a Permitting & Inspections Office and splitting Parks, Recreation & Facilities away from what had been the Department of Public Services.

The changes were not achieved alone, he said.

“It was only possible because of the amazing staff I get to work with,” Jennings said. “It is easy to beat on government, but when you work with the people I work with, you realize how special this city is.”

City property valuations are at about 80 percent of what the state has valued them. The city has already added another assessor, and Jennings said the full revaluation of city properties, the first since 2005, will be done next year.

“It should have been done five years ago, we have to do it, we are going to do it,”  he said. “But people should understand it is a re-balancing.”

The desired result is a three-way split where valuations will either increase, decrease, or remain the same. In 2017, the city valuation was $7.76 billion, and the revaluation will also account for new investment in the city, while possibly reducing the property tax rate that is now $21.65 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Jennings said providing services and maintenance is balanced by the need to watch the bottom line as city debt increases. On. Nov. 7, voters strongly supported the $64 million bond to rebuild four city elementary schools, which Jennings had opposed because of its effect on city finances.

The bond is projected to add $104 annually to the tax bill on a property valued at $240,000. 

Councilors also approved $17.8 million in new bonds as part of this year’s capital improvements budget, the start of what Strimling hopes will be $67 million in new spending on city capital needs over the next three years.

At the same time, the financial demands of the 2000 note taken out by the city to meet its $112 million pension will escalate through 2026. A $13.67 million payment is due June 1, 2018. Payments will continue to increase until the final $22.3 million payment is due June 1, 2026.

“The issues we have, particularly with pension bond, are not going away,” Jennings said. “We have to be able to continue to move forward as a city.”

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

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings speaks during a City Council workshop July 31. Councilors on Nov. 6 extended Jennings’ contract through 2021.

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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.