Portland councilors advance school budget, uncertain about municipal spending

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PORTLAND — From the City Council Finance Committee’s perspective, the $102.8 million fiscal year 2016 school budget seemed in good order April 9.

The committee, chaired by Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr., unanimously recommended the full City Council pass the spending plan.

That would happen May 4, eight days before a scheduled citywide school budget referendum.

But a proposed $175 million municipal operations budget is causing more worry. Councilors spent more than two hours discussing ways to avoid increased taxes and fees it would require, even though overall spending would decline by $1 million.

“I really feel we have pushed it to the limit with Portland taxpayers,” Councilor Jon Hinck said during the first of four committee budget review meetings. A second meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, and future meetings are scheduled April 23 and 30.

Once moved from the committee, the municipal budget and $46 million enterprise fund budgets will get a May 4 first reading, before a full council vote May 18.

If passed as proposed, the combined school and municipal budgets (which include the city share of Cumberland County operations) would add 58 cents to the current tax rate of $20 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The school budget would add 23 cents. Councilors can determine what will be spent, but have no control over individual spending areas.

A public hearing lasting about 20 minutes showed parents and students at Reiche and Riverton elementary schools were anxious to keep class sizes stable.

“I moved up here (from Philadelphia) for the quality of life, and class size is indicative of the quality of life,” Reiche parent Theolonius Dunton said.

High Street resident Steven Scharf disagreed the overall budget is the key to keeping classes smaller.

“The issue at Reiche has nothing to do with the total budget,” he said, calling it a question of overall management by school system administrators.

Councilors displayed a primary concern that the budget and operations are adept enough to deal with classroom changes. Overall, enrollment at city schools remains stable, but within those numbers, class sizes at individual schools can quickly change.

“We have to assume the ground is always moving, we need to strategize and respond to the fluctuations that come on a daily or monthly basis,” Director of School Management Jeanne Crocker said.

Councilor David Brenerman asked why the School Board had not changed the budget submitted by Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk. School Board member Laurie Davis, also chairwoman of the board’s Finance Committee, said communication was the answer.

“When we get a budget, it is really something we anticipated we would see,” she said. “We are well aligned … it is not a surprise.”

Alignment was a bit elusive as councilors began setting the timetable and goals for the municipal budget, which adds 35 cents to the tax rate while increasing the price of city-mandated 15-gallon garbage bags from $1 to $1.35 each.

“I’m going to be uncomfortable voting for an increase in something I don’t think should exist,” Hinck said.

The price increase is expected to add $517,000 in revenue, but Hinck remained skeptical of the need for it if the city is also looking at ways to improve services for collecting recyclable and non-recyclable waste.

Brenerman agreed, saying “Raising the bag fee and then two months later getting rid of the system doesn’t make sense to me.”

The proposed Housing Safety Office recommended by the Fire Safety Task Force is expected to be self-sustaining from $600,000 in fees assessed to rental property owners, but Hinck and Councilor Ed Suslovic said new staff of five may not be needed for the office.

“I’m fairly convinced we can find the resources in the Fire Department to do the inspections,” Hinck said.

With the caveat that he would accept tax increases to make up for losses in state aid, Hinck said he wants the budget to have no tax increases.

Mavodones said he would push to reopen the recommendation on the school budget if councilors expected a municipal budget without tax increases, and doubted it is possible.

“The likelihood we could pass a 0 percent budget is slim,” he said. “It’s a big budget, and there is a tiny amount we can mess with.”

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.