Portland councilors wary of tax increase in proposed city budget

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PORTLAND — Less than a week after receiving City Manager Mark Rees’ budget proposal for fiscal 2013, members of the City Council finance committee were already convinced it wouldn’t get their recommendation.

On Thursday, April 5, the committee conferenced on the overall budget proposal after a meeting to parse out Rees’ specific recommendations for the Police, Fire, Public Services, and Public Health and Human Services departments.

Rees presented his budget recommendations to the City Council just a few days before, on April 2. His $206.8 million proposal, if passed as is, would result in a 2.9 percent hike in property taxes.

The early consensus among the committee members at the Thursday meeting was that Rees’ proposed budget was too high, and the tax hike too great.

“I think people are seeing the face numbers on it. People are having sticker shock on it,” committee Chairman Councilor John Anton later said.

Throw in school Superintendent James C. Morse Sr.’s $94.9 million proposed budget, and councilors “are saying, ‘woah – too much,'” Anton said.

“My sense is we’re not comfortable with big, consistently large increases in taxes,” and that the budget would not pass as it was proposed, Anton said.

“There’s got to be a ceiling for increases,” committee member Councilor John Coyne said. “People are getting frustrated and I think we’ve got to be responsive to that.”

The council’s need to limit tax increases presents a tough balancing act against the desire to maintain services.

Rees said his proposal “provides for maintaining existing services and setting the stage for future improvements” after several years of cuts that finally stabilized in the fiscal 2012 budget.

“We did a lot of cutting in the last few years,” Anton said, and in the 2013 budget, like the last, city staff and councilors alike hope to staunch the bleeding.

But just as the thought of raising taxes is unappealing, “councilors and the public are starting to balk at the expense of service reduction,” he said.

Nevertheless, the committee asked Rees to further consider his recommendations and for his staff to identify areas where expenses might be reduced.

The request was expected, Rees said. “In any budget process,” he said, “the city manager’s recommendation are just a starting point. “

If the proposed budgets are to be pared down, neither the committee members nor the city manager knew which line items might be affected – only that the process would involve the proverbial “tough choices.”

Some departments where cuts created a stir in years past – like the public library system, which was forced to close its East and West End branches in 2010 – seem safe for the time being.

The library system’s proposed budget did not arouse “any fundamental concerns” when the finance committee reviewed it on April 3, library President Nathan Smith said.

Rees did revise the library budget slightly, reducing it by $10,000 a year to account for savings the city accrued for medical insurance that library officials were not previously aware of, he said.

The library budget had been proposed to include the system as a whole, and closing branches has not been considered this year, Smith said. Library use is on the rise, he said, with the number of total visits and items borrowed projected to top 1 million this year.

The steady gain in library use, he said, is due in part to the sheer number of people using library resources to prepare and search for employment.

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or at acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @ACullenFore.