Picking Portland's mayor: The candidates on the budget, taxes and education

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Sixth in a weekly series on where Portland’s mayoral candidates stand on issues facing the city.

PORTLAND — The mayor, who will be chosen Nov. 8 by voters rather than appointed by the City Council, will be in a position to shape the city budget.

The popularly elected mayor may claim a special mandate to fund new programs through city spending, and can offer a budget message alongside the city manager.

The mayor will also be able to veto the budget, though critics point out it takes seven votes to pass the budget, and only six votes to overturn the mayor’s veto.

Much as been made about improving the local economy, but that is a long-term budget solution. The mayor will likely be confronted on day one with a budget that needs to balanced.

Over the last four years, local budgets have been under pressure as revenue from state and federal governments shrink. The city has balanced its budget through a balance of cuts and property tax increases.

According to City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg, Portland has lost nearly 150 jobs since 2009. Property taxes, meanwhile, increased by 2.3 percent for fiscal 2012, 1 percent in fiscal 2011, 1.1 percent in fiscal 2010  and 4.3 percent in fiscal 2009. More than half of every tax dollar goes towards school spending, which is set by the City Council.

This week, mayoral candidates said education would be their their top budget priority, followed by core services like police, fire, emergency medical, trash collection and snow removal.

All said they would prefer not to raise property taxes, but some said they would be open to doing so if necessary. A few candidates said the city should establish a local circuit breaker program to offset increases for low- and fixed-income residents.

All highlighted the need for economic development as a long-term way to diversify the tax base. But a few said they’d seek a local-option sales tax to get more money from visitors, while others would seek to assess fees to some nonprofit groups.

Former state Sen. Michael Brennan said he would advocate for a lean budget that invests in education and economic development. He said promoting healthy lifestyles, with the help of hospitals, would reduce health-care costs for the city.

Brennan said he would look to sell unused city and school property – such as the horse barn at the Portland Expo and a storage site on Anderson Street – to reduce expenses and increase revenue.

Brennan said cuts in recent kindergarten through 12th-grade education budgets “may have gone too far.” He  said he would like to partner with surrounding communities to expand regional curriculum opportunities and shared operating expenses, such as school lunches, facilities maintenance and special education.

He said the mayor needs to make sure the city doesn’t lose any more state funding and must promote federal policies, like the president’s jobs bill, which would invest in school construction. He would also look to the private sector for more revenue, and extend the circuit breaker program to relieve property taxes for low-income residents.

“We need to move out of the mind set that Portland needs to pay for everything on its own,” Brennan said.

City Councilor and Mayor Nicholas Mavodones said his previous work on city and school finance committees involved line-by-line examinations of the budget, which is mostly consumed by labor expenses. He’d continue to work to keep property taxes flat, or at a minimal increase.

Education would be Mavodones’ top priority, along with essential services. He said he would seek state funding for school facility upgrades; if that fails, he’d turn to the city’s Capital Improvement Plan.

Investments in job creation and a healthy community are also budget priorities, Mavodones said, noting the increase in childhood obesity. He’d like to invest in technology that would allow same-day permitting for minor development projects, such as garages or additions, and evaluate Planning Department staffing to see if more help is needed. 

Jed Rathband, however, said “it’s going to take new leadership to inspire collective sacrifice.” But one area of the budget he is looking to increase is Portland Adult Education, where many immigrants learn English. He said he’d also like Adult Ed to teach home energy efficiency classes, where students would receive a one-time $100 tax rebate for attendance.

Instead of raising property taxes, Rathband said he’d work regionally to establish a local meals and lodging tax. He also pointed to his “trifecta,” where municipal government acts as the conduit between businesses, philanthropic organizations and nonprofits.

Former state Sen. Ethan Strimling said he would not support a property tax increase, saying “a new set of eyes” would be able to find efficiencies and savings in the budget. He previously said he’d veto a city budget that contained a 3 percent tax increase.

Budget reductions would not come from public works, education or public safety, all of which Strimling said are necessary for economic growth. Instead, he would look to consolidate services duplicated by the city and schools, such as human resources, technology, finance and legal.

Strimling said he would offer more support than is currently being offered to the superintendent of schools, who is making big changes in the School Department. For the city to have the best schools, the learning day must be expanded and the city should fund prekindergarten, he said.

Strimling criticized the city for not establishing a local circuit breaker program to reduce taxes for struggling residents. “That has been short-sighted,” he said.

While Strimling highlights his experience as CEO of LearningWorks, City Council Jill Duson said her experience is “deeply more complex.” As a former head of the state Bureau of Rehabilitative Services, she said she oversaw a $25 million budget with 150 employees working in 11 offices statewide.

“I took on an agency in crisis with a budget deficit at the state level and turned that agency around,” she said. “I bring pragmatic financial management skills to the table.”

Duson said it is irresponsible for anyone to rule out property tax increases without first having all of the current budget information, noting varying estimates of school funding. She said it was a “red herring” to discuss potential budget cuts and opportunities for savings.

Duson said she strongly supports City Councilor John Anton’s effort to establish multi-year budgets for the city.

City Councilor David Marshall said his priorities would be education and public safety. He’d look to increase revenues by making downtown zoning laws more conducive to development, which would bring in short-term fees and long-term growth.

He said he’d also like to establish a lodging tax to get more money out of visitors, rather than immediately turning to property taxes. The lodging tax is currently 7 percent, but Marshall noted some cities charge up to 15 percent. He’d work with regional partners to get Augusta’s OK, because it would generate more political support.

Marshall said more budget savings could be achieved through energy efficiency, saying an evaluation of the city’s vehicle fleet is needed. He noted as examples of past successes initiatives shepherded through his energy subcommittee, such as the energy audit and upgrades to city buildings that are expected to save $1.7 million a year and street light removal along arterials that has saved $225,000 a year.

He also highlighted the use of solar-powered trash compactors in certain parks that hold 10 times the amount of trash and send a signal to crews when they need to be emptied.

Marshall said he’d work with school officials to ensure more money is being spent in the classrooms. He’d also propose allocating 30 percent of the city’s Capital Improvement Plan toward school infrastructure and technology.

But when it comes to the mayor’s role in education funding, Markos Miller said he’s got the inside track. The Deering High School Spanish teacher said he is best positioned to have the “frank, private conversations” about school spending and services.

Miller said he’d advocate for expanding prekindergarten in public schools, saying the city would only have to pay for 25 percent of the costs. The return from early childhood education would be well worth the investment, he said.

Miller said the best opportunity for economic development is in Bayside. In the short term, he would advocate for infrastructure upgrades – such as street extensions and connections, sidewalks and a park – that would be needed to implement the community vision. Those projects would immediately create construction jobs, he said.

Miller said he would encourage the Portland Housing Authority to use its bonding authority – and leverage city property – to create more affordable workforce housing to keep more young families in the city.

To find areas of the budget to reduce, Miller said he would involve residents to see what they value. A critical look at staffing could uncover savings opportunities, he said, as would trimming the CIP budget of non-urgent projects.

Miller said he wouldn’t want to increase property taxes, but wouldn’t rule out the possibility.

Former state Rep. John Eder said he would make affordable housing and health care a priority in the budget. Eder said he’d advocate for tax breaks for affordable housing and would hire a navigator to help implement the federal affordable health care law.

Eder said he would like to administer a “happiness index” survey to find out what the community truly values before advocating for any spending cuts. If tax increases are need to support those priorities, he would support that. But the city also needs a local circuit breaker, he said, so low-income residents don’t get squeezed out.

Eder said voters would have a direct say via a bond on his proposal to upgrade the city’s electrical grid. He predicted the savings could be achieved in the school budget by having high school students ride METRO for free, though he acknowledged METRO would experience a drop in revenue.

In terms of education, Eder said he would like to find out why parents of bright, English-proficient children leave the city. He said some contend it is because the perception the city cannot afford a challenging school curriculum.

Christopher Vail said education, public safety, the environment and public services are his top priorities. But to maintain those areas, Vail said the city needs to re-examine its spending and spending by the School Department.

“We need to ask some of the tough questions in our school budget,” he said.

Vail said the schools are top-heavy with administrators while more classroom resources are needed. He said he supports creative ideas to reduce administration, such as the experiment at Reiche Elementary School, which is being managed by a  group of teachers rather than a principal.

Vail said the city needs to find ways to get more money out of tourists. He wants to generate revenue by charging cruise-ship passengers a nominal “entry fee.” He’d also like find a way to charge non-Portland residents who come to the city to use its hospitals.

Ralph Carmona echoed the priorities of others – education and essential services. He said the mayor needs to get more funding out of the state and federal governments.

Carmona said he’d communicate his support for President Obama’s Jobs Bill, which contains money for school construction that could address problems at Hall Elementary.

Richard Dodge said he’s not making any budgetary promises, because “there’s no money.” He said the city needs to make education funding a priority, along with assistance to the elderly.

Dodge said he would advocate for outsourcing any city services that can be provided more inexpensively and more efficiently by the private sector, noting how private construction crews have incentives to finish jobs quickly.

As mayor, Dodge said  he would have the economic development department be more proactive in trying to convince businesses to move to Portland. He said businesses and developers need to be “taken by the hand” and guided through process, rather than having “hurdles and roadblocks” thrown at them.

Dodge said he is a strong supporter of school Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. He said he wishes every city department had someone as reform-minded and effective as Morse.

Charles Bradgon said he would find savings in the city budget through staff reductions, particularly those jobs that started out as grant-funded, but became absorbed into the operating budget. Once those positions are eliminated, he said the budget could be balanced and more money would be used for economic development grants without increasing property taxes.

Bragdon said the mayor should not be too involved in the school budget, since the superintendent and the School Board have that expertise.

Peter Bryant said he’d try to connect dead-end streets and open them up for development. He’d also like to tax some of the nonprofit groups in the city.

Candidates Hamza Haadoow and Jodie Lapchick did not respond to emails and telephone calls seeking their comments.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbilllings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings

Sidebar Elements


Upcoming Portland mayoral candidate forums

• Thursday, Oct. 20, 1 p.m., Deering High School. A forum for students, hosted and moderated by students.

• Friday, Oct. 21, 5:30 p.m., Portland Public Library. Democratic candidate forum followed by meet and greet. Sponsored by Portland Democratic City Committee.

• Tuesday, Oct. 25, 7:30-9 a.m., Holiday Inn by the Bay. Sponsored by the Portland Community Chamber and Maine Real Estate and Development Association.

• Thursday, Oct. 27, 7 p.m., St. Peter’s Church, Federal Street. Sponsored by the India Street Neighborhood Association.

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