Proposed budget boosts South Portland property tax rate by 3.5%
SOUTH PORTLAND — The proposed city budget for fiscal year 2015 calls for a 3 percent increase in spending.
The City Council held a joint public hearing Wednesday night at City Hall to introduce the combined $76.9 million school and municipal budget.
In their regularly scheduled meeting Monday, the council also passed a final reading of an amendment to city purchasing powers, approved a business license for a lobster-boat cafe at the Maine Mall, and approved street closures for sewer work.
City Manager Jim Gailey presented the $29.7 million proposed city operating budget, a 2.3 percent increase from last year's budget.
Including totals from the school and county, the proposal requests a 3.5 percent increase in the property tax rate. The increase would potentially raise the mil rate to $17.25 per $1,000 of assessed value, from the current rate of $16.70.
In addition to a new engineer and public works employee, the city plans to rehire four employees whose positions were previously funded by grants that will soon expire: a police detective, a police officer, a deputy fire chief, and a parks worker.
Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin and School Board Chairman Tappan Fitzgerald presented the proposed $44.8 million school budget for fiscal year 2015 to the council for the first time since plans were finalized last week.
Councilors and School Board members congratulated one another on successfully staying within their predetermined limit of a 2 percent to 4 percent property tax increase.
"I don’t have any major concerns, though we're still going to look into all the pieces of the budget," Mayor Jerry Jalbert said. "I would love to have the tax increase less than 3 percent, but I don’t think it’s a make or break for any of us."
The city recently received the highest possible rating, AAA, from credit rating agency Standard and Poor's.
Discussions and changes to the budgets are expected, as the City Council and School Board will come together for a final joint workshop on the town and school budgets on May 7.
The council will vote on the finalized budget later in May, and eventually the school budget will go to a city referendum on June 10.
In their meeting Monday, the council unanimously approved an amendment to the city's purchasing ordinance that provides the city more flexibility in selling city-owned property.
According to Gailey, the change will allow the city more options, including auctions, brokerage and negotiated sales, as opposed to just seeking bids.
The change also allows more flexibility in the criteria attached to property sales. Rather than being bound solely to the highest bidder, the council can consider factors such as proposed land use, job creation, historical or architectural significance, and community need or neighborhood benefits.
The ordinance would avoid predicaments like the one the council recently encountered with the repurposing of the former Roosevelt School. A lower bidder was selected because he had a plan that would retain much of the architectural structure of the building, a concern of the neighborhood.
"We looked at the overall picture, not just who was the highest bidder," Jalbert said of the former Roosevelt School property sale. "I think that worked out very well and that we’re certainly going in the right direction with this."
The change in the ordinance could potentially impact lease negotiations between the city and Cafua, the Dunkin' Donuts franchise management company that purchased St. John the Evangelist church on Main Street last December.
According to Jalbert, it's still not known if the company will instead move an existing Dunkin' Donuts on Main Street to the city land at the corner of Westbrook and Main Street. But the amended ordinance, which becomes law in 16 days, could facilitate that process.
Linda Bean, whose seven restaurants and lobster shacks include establishments at the Portland International Jetport and in Freeport, is expanding to the Maine Mall next month, after the council approved a business license.
According to manager Andrew Omo, the nautical-themed restaurant will be inside the mall at the central court, near Sports Authority and Gap. Table seating and a bar will surround a full-sized lobster boat, which will contain a small kitchen. The business also received approval to serve beer and wine.
"Looks like a change of times at the mall," Councilor Linda Cohen said.
Omo said he hopes for a soft opening on May 15, with a grand opening on May 30.
Councilors authorized the closure of eight streets and night work as needed as part of the long-term Thornton Heights Sewer Separation Phase 1 Project.
The project, which was contracted to Gorham Sand and Gravel at the last City Council meeting, involves the reconstruction of sewers and storm drains in the neighborhood.
"This is for a massive project that’s been planned for a couple of years," project manager Brad Weeks said. "It’s something that has to be done and we’ll be making the maximum effort to notify residents."
The streets involved are Carignan Avenue, McLean Street, Gerry Avenue, Wilson Street, Tremont Street, Union Street, Grandview Avenue and Sunset Avenue. Weeks emphasized that the streets would only be closed when they are being worked on, and that residents of the streets would be guaranteed access.
Residents who have questions or want updates on progress can visit the city website.