Portland Council budget votes set for May 15

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PORTLAND — As the second public hearings and council votes on the $345 million school and municipal budgets approach on Monday, May 15, the budget process has proved less tempestuous than the last two years.

On May 4, the City Council Finance Committee unanimously recommended passage of the $105 million education budget, and slightly amended the $240 million municipal budget before recommending its passage.

On Monday, both budgets were reviewed again in a City Council workshop.

If councilors approve May 15, and voters approve the education budget June 13, the budgets could increase the city property tax rate by 2.6 percent, or 56 cents, from the present rate of $21.11 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Last year, the $236 million municipal budget was sharply criticized because of the shift of health care services from the India Street Public Health Center to Greater Portland Health.

In 2015, councilors grappled with how to fund General Assistance benefits for immigrants seeking asylum as the state refused to reimburse the city for vouchers.

A change in state law that year provides reimbursements for up to two years, and City Manager Jon Jennings’ proposed budget does not provide money to extend benefits for those who are set to go over the two-year limit.

Jennings estimated it would cost $750,000 to $950,000 to assist 180 people who would be ineligible for the housing, food and personal care vouchers. He has said from the outset of budget discussions that any decision to fund vouchers should be made by councilors.

New city analysis indicates there are 23 recipients who are not part of the city’s job placement efforts in the HIRE program and are not disabled.

On the school side, the $105 million budget that eliminates 23 positions – including nine at the School Department’s Central Office on Cumberland Avenue – has been pared from the $107 million Superintendent Xavier Botana proposed in early March.

The school budget would increase $1.4 million, and represents 49 percent of the tax levy for the city. The budget also contains a $490,000 increase in the city’s obligation for Cumberland County government operations to $5.9 million.

Jennings said Monday the budget met the council goal of keeping a tax rate increase at 2.5 percent while also addressing other goals, including better stewardship of parks and open spaces by hiring a new playground technician and adding another arborist and a second horticulturist.

The budget also allocates funding to paint street lanes and crossing zones twice a year, while the new contract for operations at the Riverside Recycling Facility saves the city $1 million annually.

Outside the tax rate, the increase of note is a 25-cent per hour hike in parking meter rates, which is expected to generate $600,000.

Jennings said a budget to have all departments “fully functioning” would have required a tax increase of 8 percent, and the wish list of new positions and purchases was extensive.

Councilors David Brenerman and Belinda Ray said Monday they will introduce amendments next week to fulfill the biggest wish – a waterfront manager at a projected cost of $69,000.

The last such position was cut almost a decade ago when Jeff Monroe was let go, and Jennings said the burgeoning cruise ship industry and increased economic activity on the waterfront would benefit from stronger oversight and focus.

Ray said the position could be funded by eliminating the post of special assistant to the mayor, added last year by Mayor Ethan Strimling. Ray said she has found the job, filled by Jason Shedlock, of little value to the rest of the council and has heard constituent complaints about it.

On May 4, Strimling said the job is essential to him because Shedlock helps research and develop policy.

“It is not duplicative it is instrumental,” Strimling said. “He has offered his services to councilors, too. Some take him up on it, some don’t.”

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

The Portland Council Finance Committee, led by Nick Mavodones, left, with Justin Costa and Pious Ali, on May 4 recommended passage of city and school budgets.

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.