Portland council OKs new trail, sets path for bonds

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PORTLAND — City councilors on Monday approved a new trail for West Commercial Street and moved along bond proposals for schools, infrastructure and equipment.

The unanimous vote to build a $353,000 trail from the Star Match building to link with the Fore River Trail carries a $70,000 local share already funded in a capital improvements plan. The remainder of the costs are funded by the state Department of Transportation, using passed-through federal funds.

The first readings of a proposed $64 million bond to renovate and upgrade four elementary schools and the $20 million fiscal year 2018 CIP set the stage for March 20 hearings on measures that will affect city property tax rates for nearly the next decade.

The council is expected to vote on the school bond March 20. The CIP vote may not come until March 27 or April 5, since the Council Finance Committee has not made its recommendation on the CIP.

The CIP calls for borrowing $17.8 million to purchase vehicles and equipment, fix sidewalks and traffic lights and renovate and repair municipal and school department properties.

The remainder of the CIP budget is funded with $540,000 in revenue from the Bayside tax increment finance zone and more than $2 million in existing CIP fund balances.

The plan was first introduced by City Manager Jon Jennings on Feb. 16, and reviewed again by the Finance Committee led by Councilor Nick Mavodones, who is joined there by Councilors Pious Ali and Justin Costa.

City Finance Director Brendan O’Connell expects the new bonds to add 6.3 cents to the property tax rate of $21.10 per $1,000 of assessed value. The proposed CIP is the first time in several years new bonds would exceed retiring debt and add to the tax rate.

Jennings and Mayor Ethan Strimling agreed Feb. 16 spending more than retiring debt is required because of needs throughout the city.

“We have done our best to satisfy the requests that are out there in our entire community,” Jennings said. “We have to look at everything in how it affects the entire city.”

In his prepared comments to the committee, Strimling said he supports bonding above retiring debt for the next several years as an investment in the city.

Including the separate, $64 million bond proposed to renovate and upgrade four elementary schools, he said what could be $150 million in bond spending would be “an unprecedented commitment that I believe will transform our city and give us a foundation for sustained prosperity.”

Jennings and Public Works Director Chris Branch had been hoping the CIP plan would be approved sooner in order to get bids out for work on streets and buildings. But the Finance Committee work was delayed by weather and committee members decided the Feb. 23 meeting agenda would have only the hearing for the school bond.

Mavodones said March 3 he was comfortable with making a CIP recommendation, but sensed Ali and Costa may have wanted more time and public information made available about the details.

“It is not going to appreciably change the final vote by the council,” he said.

The CIP uses $1.35 million as combined local shares for Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System-funded projects, including $767,000 to build a traffic rotary at the intersection of Falmouth Street and Brighton and Deering avenues.

The plan also proposes to spend $2.9 million for local sidewalk preservation work, $1 million to replace the fender systems for ships berthing at the Ocean Gateway Terminal and $700,000 to replace Fire Department Engine 6.

The CIP would bond $2.15 million for School Department projects, with $750,000 spent for new windows at Deering High School.

With a recommendation on the CIP planned for March 23, the full council could vote on the plan at a special March 27 meeting, or on April 5.

A second component of bond spending to be approved is a $23.5 million plan for sewer and stormwater projects that includes work needed to meet federal and state mandates to eliminate the flow of untreated water in Casco Bay. These are bonds paid with sewer and stormwater revenues.

Leading the list of projects are a $5.5 million project to separate wastewater and stormwater drainage in an area extending from the Marginal Way and Forest Avenue intersection to beyond Deering Oaks Park.

A similar $5.2 million project is budgeted for work on Bedford Street near the University of Southern Maine campus and confluence of Bedford Street, and Deering  and Brighton avenues.

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

City Councilors on March 6 approved an agreement to construct a trail along this stretch of West Commercial Street.