Portland council expected to vote on tax relief, TIF revisions

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PORTLAND — As the current City Council year draws to a close, the Monday, Nov. 20 meeting is expected to resolve substantial unfinished business.

Hearings and council votes on proposed property tax relief for residents 62 and older, and revisions to tax increment finance policy, were postponed at the council’s Nov. 6 meeting. 

Also at that meeting, councilors had first readings of four amendments to the zoning structure governing a $512 million expansion of Maine Medical Center; regulations on pesticide use; and allocation of $3.5 million in proceeds from sales of city-owned land in Bayside to help fund the move of the city Public Works Department to Canco Road.

The city sold four parcels for $3.8 million and expects to pay $342,000 in various fees associated with the transactions.

Votes and hearings on any or all of those items could be postponed at the Nov. 20 meeting. But that would push them back to no earlier than Dec. 2, when the council begins a new year with the inaugurations of re-elected Councilors Justin Costa and Jill Duson, and incoming Councilor Kim Cook.

The Nov. 6 postponements were due to the absence of Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, and the preference that he be allowed to speak and vote on measures he had been working on and supporting. Thibodeau has also stewarded the proposed pesticide ordinance through the Sustainability & Transportation Committee, which he leads.

The property tax relief and TIF revisions are initiatives introduced by Mayor Ethan Strimling, although the currently proposed changes to TIF policies are not what he first called for in September 2015.

The Portland Senior Tax Equity Program would provide rebates to residents 62 and older who now qualify for the state Property Tax Fairness Credit Program.  The state programs offer tax credits up to $900, which would be matched as rebates by the city when eligibility is established.

To be eligible for the state tax credits, residents must earn no more than $53,000, depending on the size of the household, and spend more than 6 percent of their income on property taxes or 40 percent of the income on rent.

If passed, the P-STEP would provide rebates beginning in 2019, based on 2018 tax returns. Applicants could file on or after March 29 each year, and rebates would be mailed by Sept. 30. 

The city manager’s office would be required to budget for the rebates; an initial estimate of the program places its cost at $250,000. The average amount of rebates, based on 2015 data from the Maine Revenue Service, would be $197 for renters and $324 for homeowners.

In September 2016, as the council was preparing for a hearing and vote on tax increment financing to allow biotech company Immucell to expand on property off Riverside Street, Strimling announced his intention to amend the agreement to require local set-asides for labor, guarantees prevailing wages would be paid, and for contractors to have apprenticeship programs.

The $20 million expansion at Immucell was necessary so the company could make a new drug to fight mastitis, a bovine gland infection that can force dairy farmers to discard milk from sick cows.

The company has built a 12,600-square-foot plant for the drug, and the 12-year TIF from the city provides $374,000 in rebates on increased tax valuations, while also adding $231,000 in new tax revenue to the city.

Strimling never introduced his amendments to the agreement. He instead got a commitment from Councilor David Brenerman, the chairman of the Economic Development Committee, to review TIF policies last changed in 2013.

The revisions in front of the council now would require companies seeking a credit enhancement agreement accompanying a TIF to pay the prevailing construction wages, to ensure equal employment opportunity and nondiscrimination, and extend the maximum length for a TIF for affordable housing from 20 to 30 years.

The council may also look into creating a City Workforce Job Training Program funded through TIF proceeds from existing districts, according to a memo from city Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell.

It is possible Strimling or Councilor Pious Ali will also offer an amendment requiring “firms employed in the construction phase of a TIF-assisted project must either participate in, or have one or more employees who participate in, an apprenticeship program,” according to the memo.

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.