Portland budgets would add nearly 3% to property tax

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PORTLAND — Property owners face a tax increase of 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed value in the combined fiscal year 2016 budget.

The 2.9 percent increase from the current tax rate of $20 was outlined by acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian at Monday night’s City Council meeting on the proposed spending for municipal services, education, and the city share of Cumberland County government operations.

Hill-Christian’s comments did not diverge from her introductory letter accompanying the $221 million budget, which eliminates 24 city jobs while funding a new Housing Safety Office and allocating $100,000 to study of the effects of rising sea levels on the city.

“I have been very mindful of the challenges we face due to the reduction of general assistance reimbursements, additional payroll and benefits costs, losses of public health and safety grants, and decreasing revenues,” she said.

Mayor Michael Brennan’s remarks followed Hill-Christian’s presentation.

“I want us to make decisions on the values we hold important in the city and not let external negative forces drive those decisions,” the mayor said.

If the budgets are approved, a property worth $200,000 would see a $116 increase on its annual tax bill.

The municipal budget and school budget will be reviewed by the City Council Finance Committee in a public hearing at 6 p.m. Thursday in City Hall Room 209. The committee will also meet April 16, 23 and 30, before a City Council first reading of the municipal budget May 4. The council’s budget vote is scheduled for May 18.

Brennan also announced a budget public hearing will be held April 28 at Deering High School.

The $102 million school budget approved by the School Board March 31 is scheduled for a public hearing April 27. The referendum vote on the budget is May 12.

Councilors on Monday also approved a first reading of the $18.7 million capital improvements budget. The CIP budget includes $14.7 million in municipal bonding and $4 million for sewer projects, with bonds to be repaid by user fees. It was forwarded by the Finance Committee on March 26 by a 3-1 vote, with Councilor Jon Hinck opposed.

The CIP budget seeks a $7 million replacement of the emergency communications system, a service shared with South Portland and Cape Elizabeth. In order to avoid a referendum on the spending, bonding must be approved as an emergency measure, with a least seven affirmative votes from councilors.

Of the projected tax increase of 58 cents, 35 cents would cover municipal services in fiscal year 2016. The municipal portion includes the assessment from Cumberland County, which will increase by $271,000 to $5.24 million.

Hill-Christian said the job cuts, 15 of which are now filled, would save $1.01 million. The bulk of the cuts come in the Public Health Division, with almost 10, and the Fire Department, with almost eight.

The public health cuts reflect potential loss of state aid funding services at city and school clinics and changing operations of the general assistance voucher program and homeless shelters, which have been criticized by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Hill-Christian also proposed a one-time use of $350,000 in transitional service funds to help families who would otherwise lose general assistance food vouchers

The $4.28 million Community Development Block Grant program was referred by councilors to the Housing and Community Development Committee for an April 22 public hearing.

There is a $50 million increase in the city’s property valuation, to $7.7 billion, but losses in state aid, especially in general assistance reimbursements, led to a requested increase of $3 million in property tax revenues, to $79 million. Debt service will also increase by $500,000 next year, largely driven by paying off the pension obligation bond that matures in 2026.

Hill-Christian also proposes a 35-cent price hike for the 15-gallon garbage bags residents are required to buy, to $1.35 each. The increase is the first in five years and is projected to raise $517,000 in revenue.

The Housing Safety Office, developed at the suggestion of the Fire Safety Task Force that met through the winter, is expected to be self-sustaining, using landlord registration fees to fund a $600,000 budget.

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

Updated April 9 to list $350,000 in transitional services funds for food vouchers.

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.