Portland budget means 3.1% increase in property tax

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PORTLAND — A protracted budget process was climaxed by a marathon meeting, but city spending for fiscal year 2016 was set June 24.

The 5-4 City Council vote appropriating $225 million in municipal spending means city property owners will see an overall 3.1 percent property tax increase, from $20 per $1,000 of assessed value to $20.61.

Councilors met for almost eight hours, including a three-hour public hearing.

The approval came after two postponements of a final vote; it takes effect July 6. Councilors also passed a supplemental spending plan to keep the city running until then.

The budget also includes $46.5 million for operating the city’s enterprise funds, which include the Portland International Jetport, and the city obligations for Cumberland County operations.

The tax increase also reflects the voter approval on May 12 of the $102.8 million education budget, although an anticipated increase in state General Purpose Aid of $1.7 million above the budgeted $15 million could reduce the tax impact.

While Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said the extra subsidy may be accompanied by other state reductions to education funding, the infusion of aid means the school budget will require an increase of $600,000 in property tax revenue instead of $2.3 million.

School Superintendent Emanuel Caulk had said any additional state subsidies would be directed to reducing the property tax burden, which could mean the projected tax increase for education and school operations would be 1 cent instead of the budgeted 23-cent increase to $10.34 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The need for a smaller increase in tax revenue for education was more than met by the need for more tax revenue for municipal operations, most notably the one-year Community Support Fund designed to extend benefits to asylum seekers facing a July 1 cutoff of General Assistance vouchers.

Councilors also restored $265,000 to operate the overflow homeless shelter at Preble Street Resource Center, used on nights when the Oxford Street Shelter is filled.

If the new biennial state budget withstands a veto by Gov. Paul LePage, the city would also see about $635,000 in unanticipated funding for homeless shelter operations, because the state will fund General Assistance reimbursements at a flat rate of 70 percent instead of a sliding rate beginning at 10 percent and increasing to 80 percent.

The municipal budget was opposed by the entire council Finance Committee of Chairman Nick Mavodones Jr., and Councilors Jill Duson, Jon Hinck and Ed Suslovic.

Suslovic and Hinck also opposed the budget the committee forwarded to the full council in May. On June 24, Suslovic also sought to block use of $500,000 in city surplus funds.

The city will have to use as much as $5.1 million in surplus this year to cover homeless shelter and General Assistance reimbursements the state Department of Health and Human Services will not provide because of procedural violations cited at Oxford Street and General Assistance vouchers given to immigrants the state considers ineligible.

The new budget contains fee increases spread throughout city operations, but reduces sewer user fees by $1.50 per hundred cubic feet to $8.20 on Jan. 1, 2016. That is also the date a new monthly fee of $6 per 1,200 square feet will be assessed all property owners to pay for improvement projects for the city storm-water system and the water treatment plant near East End Beach.

The most contentious increase discussed and passed by a 5-4 vote was a 35 percent increase for trash bags required for collection by the Department of Public Services. The bag prices will increase from $1 to $1.35 for 15-gallon bags, and from $2 to $2.70 for 30-gallon bags.

The bags will also be changing in color from blue to purple. A successful amendment by Suslovic gives residents a 90-day grace period to use up the blue bags.

Hinck and Suslovic continued to oppose the pay-per-bag program. Hinck advocated shifting to colored collection bins with lids to separate trash and recyclables.

Suslovic called on new City Manager Jon Jennings to bring South Portland’s garbage collection methods to the city. Jennings has been the assistant city manager in South Portland, which uses bins for curbside collection.

“This is the last year I would support a plastic bag fee or system,” Suslovic said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.