Policy Wonk: Portland councilors demonstrate arrogance of power

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Three Portland city councilors have the legal power and the arrogance to stymie six other councilors, the Council Finance Committee, the unanimous vote of the Portland School Board, and the overwhelming vote of the Ad Hoc School Facilities Committee.

All of those groups have urged that a $64.2 million bond issue be sent to the voters to rebuild or repair Presumpscot, Longfellow, Lyseth, and Reiche elementary schools. The bond issue needs seven affirmative votes on the council.

These three voices brushed off 10 years of support, six other background studies, and overwhelming public support at hearings and via e-mail for first one, and then another, and now all four of these projects.

These three councilors know that several of these schools have been denied state construction funds several times; that the chance of state funds in the next biennium is low; that interest rates and borrowing costs are low and will likely rise in the future, and that the passage of time generally increases construction costs.

These three cling to the thin hope that state construction funds will be available for one or more of these schools, thus reducing the burden on city taxpayers. But they also know that state policy allows schools with emergencies to jump to the head of the state funding line; one or two such emergencies anywhere in the state will doom Portland’s chances for state construction money.

They know that recently built or about to be built Portland schools (East End, Ocean Avenue, and Hall) received state funding because emergency conditions existed – mold, safety issues, fire damage. They also know that no such conditions exist in the four schools presently being discussed.

One dissenting councilor would put a $24 million bond issue before the voters to fully fund Lyseth renovations and make minor capital improvements and repairs to seven other schools in the system. This proposal reminds us that the city has erred for some time in not using the annual capital improvement program to make needed repairs to schools, but it totally ignores the fact that three other elementary schools need renovations now.

Two councilors urge adoption of a $31.5 million bond issue to renovate Lyseth and Presumpscot; they would wait to see what the state distribution of school construction funds is in mid-2018 before doing more. This strategy forces us (among four bad apples) to fund and rebuild the least-worst school first, which will preserve our worst schools position on the state’s priority list (a position that remains below historical state funding cut-offs).

They further argue that if state funds are not forthcoming, a future council would promptly approve bonds to fund the two remaining schools. But this is problematic, because a future council is not bound to bring a bond issue for the second two schools forward.

They also argue that the time frame for rebuilding these four schools (eight years) would not be altered. But this, too, is misleading; their argument ignores the fact that a $64.2 million bond issue (if approved) leaves all decision making in the hands of the city. We gain back time lost by delays that accompany use of state construction funds.

We obviously can’t rebuild four schools simultaneously, but we could gain time by overlapping these projects; we should proceed with the worst schools first, could augment Planning Board staff to meet city/school/neighborhood review and approval processes, and could engage multiple design/engineering and construction firms.

In short, though time frames for construction projects are difficult to predict, it is certainly conceivable that the eight-year completion date for rebuilding these schools could be reduced by a year or two.

But the short-sightedness, the arrogance, the unbending opposition of these three councilors has hung the whole city out to dry. They have ignored reality, colleagues, professionals, thousands of citizens and hundreds of young families. They have delayed the vote on the $64.2 million bond package from June to November (another five months wasted) and have offered the city less than half a loaf.

The message these actions send to businesses and families living in, or thinking about moving to Portland, is appalling. They have demonstrated that power without common sense is ruinous.

Orlando Delogu of Portland is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a longtime public policy consultant to federal, state, and local government agencies and officials. He can be reached at orlandodelogu@maine.rr.com.