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Portland voters face decision on $94.2M school budget

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Portland voters face decision on $94.2M school budget

PORTLAND — A proposed $94.2 million school budget is in voters' hands after the City Council approved it for a May 15 referendum.

Even after the council's Finance Committee reduced the city and school budgets' combined tax rate increase from 3.2 percent to 2.9 percent, in part by chiseling $175,000 from the school budget and moving a nearly $500,000 technology investment to the Capital Improvement Projects plan, some councilors expressed concern before Monday's decision.

Councilor Jill Duson said, as she has throughout the budget process, that the 2.9 percent tax increase is too high. "In the end we need to balance the two (budgets) to a point that we have a supportable overall impact on our municipal tax rate," Duson said.

Other councilors expressed concern about pay raises that the School Department negotiated with its labor unions. While police officers and staff at the Barron Center, a city-owned nursing home, are underpaid compared to similar organizations in other cities, Councilor Ed Suslovic said, and most municipal employees expecting raises will get little more than 1 percent, teacher salary increases under the proposed budget total 4.5 percent.

The "disparity between what the city has been able to offer their workers and what the school has offered theirs" is a concern, Suslovic said.

While School Board members present at the council meeting did not dispute Suslovic's statement, School Board Chairwoman Kate Snyder said Tuesday that the 4.5 percent figure is actually the projected average salary increase for teachers in fiscal 2014, not fiscal 2013.

The larger increase comes from a three-year union contract and was shown to councilors as part of a multi-year budget projection, Snyder said. The projected average increase in teacher's salaries for 2013 is 1.9 percent, she said.

The concerns did not keep councilors from supporting it; both Duson and Suslovic voted later in the evening to send the school budget to referendum. The order passed unanimously.

"I viewed it in the context of one city, one budget," the Finance Committee chairman, Councilor John Anton, said. The combined school and city budget, which totals just over $300 million, preserves services and maintains employment at the city level while keeping the city on a path to a structurally balanced budget in the future, he said.

Snyder said after the meeting that she was optimistic that voters, too, would approve the school budget.

Though voter turnout is traditionally low for such referendums, Portland has no precedent for defeating school budgets at referendum, Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. said.

In the event that voters deny the budget, the city has time to revise the budget and hold a second referendum before the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

Voting will take place from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on May 15. The council will hold a workshop on the city budget on Monday, May 14, and will take final action on that budget at it's May 21 meeting.

The School Board was to meet on Tuesday evening to officially reduce its budget to the $94.2 million mark approved by the council.

Entertainment licenses

Following the vote on the school budget, the council passed an amendment to the city's after-hours entertainment license ordinance, requiring that all new applicants meet with police to discuss safety plans, and alert the city clerk seven days before holding any after-hours events.

The amendment also limits license holders to no more than 24 after-hours events per calendar year.

The original council item allowed no more than two after-hours events per calendar month. Anton proposed an amendment to strike the limit, which failed, and then proposed the 24-events-per-year amendment, which he said would allow business owners greater flexibility.

Four current holders of after-hours entertainment licenses – including the most recent recipient, Port City Music Hall, whose application earlier this year spawned a renewed city debate about the licenses – will not be subject to the revised ordinance.

The council also approved an order to change language in the city's traffic and motor vehicle code to allow the use of electronic, multi-space parking meters on public streets.

The city is planning a test of the meters to this month and has already begun work to install them. Meters will be placed near Maine Medical Center, the Children's Museum on Free Street, and Sebago Brewing Co. on Fore Street.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.