Portland council delays votes on tax relief, TIF changes

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PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday approved new police contracts, allocated additional funding to the School Department, and approved a master agreement for individual leases for wireless signal boosters on utility poles.

But the meeting was also notable for what councilors didn’t do.

They postponed until Nov. 20 votes on changes to tax increment finance policies and a property tax relief program for residents aged 62 and older.

The votes were delayed because Councilor Spencer Thibodeau was unable to attend Monday. Thibodeau was the only councilor absent, but Mayor Ethan Strimling said Thibodeau’s work on and support for both measures made it proper to wait until Thibodeau is present.

Two new police contracts, one covering 125 officers and detectives and the second covering 32 lieutenants and sergeants, were unanimously approved. The governing unions have also approved the three-year deals that are retroactive to Jan. 1 and extend to Dec. 31, 2019.

Within the deals is a memorandum of understanding that will move the department forward in its use of body cameras, first with a pilot program.

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said he expects full implementation to move forward by July 1, 2018, although that may mean the city will have put out a request for proposals to buy the cameras.

The pilot program has been described by City Manager Jon Jennings as involving eight officers, using redirected grant funding from the U.S. Department of Justice. Jennings has earmarked $400,000 in the fiscal year 2019 capital improvement budget to fully outfit the police force, but that budget will not be up for a council vote until the first part of 2018.

Sauschuck said the definitive guidelines for use of body cams have not been developed, and will not be until the department meets with councilors, the public, and the ACLU for input. He expects several meetings before guidelines are finalized.

Councilors also unanimously approved allocating $712,000 of $1.7 million in Maine Department of Education funding directly to the city School Department to fund programs and services this year. The money is from subsidies over and above what had been budgeted by the School Department when it anticipated how the Maine Legislature would fund the state biennial budget. 

The state budget was approved after city voters approved the school budget in May.

Included in the one-time expenditures is $112,500 for 2.5 English language learning educational technician positions in three schools, $131,000 for capital improvement spending, and $145,000 for health centers.

Councilors are not empowered to direct School Department spending, but an Oct. 12 memo from city Finance Director Brendan O’Connell notes the specific allocations were discussed by Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana and the Council Finance Committee led by Councilor Nick Mavodones.

On Monday, Mavodones said the remaining $1 million could be used for capital improvements in the next school budget, but no decisions have been made.

Wireless device users could see a future boost in signal transmissions after councilors unanimously approved the overriding master agreement for Newport Beach, California-based Mobilitie to install “small cells” on utility poles.

The devices include antennae that boost reception and increase download speeds for wireless transmissions. The master agreement is for 25 years, but Mobilitie and the city would still negotiate leases, including specific rents, for individual poles.

With the postponement of votes on tax relief and TIF revisions, the Nov. 20 meeting could have a lengthy agenda, including votes on a proposed ordinance governing pesticide use, amendments to the Maine Medical Center institutional overlay zoning, and creation of a new TIF zone for the proposed Avesta affordable housing development at 510 Cumberland Ave.

Those were among items accepted as first reads Monday. Votes and hearings on any or all could be moved to future council meetings, but only if the council votes Nov. 20 to postpone action.

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

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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.