More firefighters, park improvements on deck in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Firefighter staffing and the future of Mill Creek Park will have to be sorted by the City Council in the coming months. 

On Monday, four of seven councilors met in a workshop to be briefed on those items, and to get a report on the city’s financial situation. Councilors Rosemarie De Angelis, Tom Blake and Alan Livingston were absent. 

Councilors were amenable to a plan to allocate an additional $52,000 next year to allow the Fire Department to hire two additional firefighters.

The firefighters are crucial, Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said in a memo, because three retirements and one resignation in the past three months have put a strain on the department’s overtime budget. 

There are also only 11 firefighters on daytime shifts, which isn’t enough to cover the needs of the city, Guimond said. Ultimately, he said he’d like to see 16 on every shift.

About a dozen firefighters and union representatives urged the councilors Monday to approve the funds. They said increasing numbers isn’t just a question of overtime, but one of safety; 11 per shift, they said, is just not enough.

“We’re concerned not only for our residents, but because of the stress levels this puts on firefighters,” said Mike Williams, vice president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine. 

John Bryer, president of the South Portland firefighters’ union, told the councilors that four men are required with each engine that shows up at a fire. If four others are gone on two ambulance calls, that leaves only three men left at the station. If another emergency breaks out, it’s jut not enough, he said. 

“This is what we’re dealing with,” he told councilors. “Thirteen (firefighters per shift) should be the minimum.”

The councilors in attendance all agreed that funding the additional $52,000 next year would be good for the department, and pledged to support hiring two new firefighters.

City Manager Jim Gailey said he agreed the department needed more firefighters, but didn’t want residents to think they are in any danger.  He noted the city’s mutual aid agreement with area fire departments means South Portland can call on other municipalities when needed.

“We’re not going to run short-handed when it comes to a fire,” he said. “The chief was very quick to note that. We are blessed to have Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough and Portland at our borders real quick when we need them.”

Mill Creek Park

Councilors also heard an update on plans to improve Mill Creek Park this year.

The plan on the table, designed by Topsham-based landscape architect Regina Leonard with help from Sebago Technics, would bring changes to the pond, Mill Stone Plaza and the section of the park at the intersection of Broadway and Ocean Street. 

“It’s our goal to create a special place that people want to be, that people can see from the streets and the sidewalks,” Leonard said.

The plan calls for pond wall and coping to deal with erosion at the banks of the pond that are most well-travelled. An entry arch would be built at the intersection of Broadway and Ocean Street, with stone walls leading to a wrought-iron “Mill Creek Park” sign. 

That archway would lead directly to a formal public garden, with a circular courtyard and benches. A new path system would help guide traffic through the park, between the plaza, pond, gazebo, veterans monument and the Rose Garden. 

The Mill Stone Plaza would be modernized with more seating, repaving and in-ground lights to create a visual barrier to the pond.

Leonard said the path project and Mill Stone Plaza improvements could go out to bid as soon as this month. The preliminary cost estimate is about $385,000.

Councilors were largely supportive of Leonard’s designs. 

“I think this improves the flow and the openness of the park,” Coward said. “The plan also brings into the park the areas along Broadway that are currently sort of cut off. I think the park will look bigger than it does at the moment.”

But questions were raised about Mill Creek Park’s ongoing problem with rowdy, destructive ducks. 

Councilor Jerry Jalbert said he’d like to see a plan for dealing with the ducks, who dirty the pond, erode the grass and sometimes bother people.

“It’s going to be hard to spend big sums of money on this unless we think the nuisance, and they are a nuisance, is somewhat mitigated,” he said.

‘A very good year’

Alson on Monday, Finance Director Greg L’Heureux presented the results of a recent audit of city finances and gave a report on city’s financial outlook. 

Undesignated funds – surplus money not earmarked by the city – totaled $9.6 million at the beginning of this fiscal year, L’Heureux said. That’s about 13.5 percent of the budget.

“We’re in really good shape there,” he said. “Our fund balance had a very good year.”

All told, the city’s general fund balance, including the city and school budgets, on June 30, 2011, was $21.9 million. 

On the other side of the equation, the debt load is expected to spike this year when the city issues the first bond on the high school renovation project. 

By Sept. 1, L’Heureux predicts the debt to jump to nearly $50 million. On June 30, 2011, the city’s outstanding debt was about $23 million. But the finance director said that should be no cause for alarm.

“The perception I’ve developed over the years is you start worrying about your debt when it starts getting over $3,000 per capita,” L’Heureux said. “We’re currently right around the $1,000 mark. With the new debt we’ll be issuing, we’ll increase to about the $2,000 level.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.