Portland mayor seeks spending cuts, new revenues and fees, to protect school budget

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PORTLAND — In an effort to balance out the property tax burden and avert additional cuts to the proposed school budget, Mayor Ethan Strimling on Monday introduced plans to amend the $247 million municipal budget.

“I wanted to make sure there was a full discussion about the entire budget. I don’t look at the budget as ‘their budget, our budget,'” he said of proposing a net $1.16 million in revenue shifts and $496,000 in spending reductions.

He briefly outlined the amendments and reasoning behind them in his comments on the budget introduced by City Manager Jon Jennings on April 9. But how they will fare in the Finance Committee will be seen Wednesday, May 9.

If enacted, the package of amendments could reduce the property tax increase in the municipal budget to 7 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Jennings’ proposed budget seeks a 2.6 percent increase – 29 cents per $1,000 of valuation – in the property tax rate. Of the current tax rate of $21.65 per $1,000, $11.04 funds city operations and obligations to Cumberland County. The remaining $10.61 pays for education.

Strimling sits on the Finance Committee, which is led by Councilor Nick Mavodones and also staffed by Councilor Justin Costa. The committee held a review and public hearing on the budget May 3, and are expected to make their recommendations to the full council on May 9, along with a recommendation on the proposed $112 million school budget for fiscal year 2019.

If the committee moves ahead without the mayor’s proposed amendments, he can also offer them when the municipal budget is up for a council vote, scheduled for May 21.

A vote on the school budget is expected Monday, May 14, and will likely be preceded by a public hearing.

Strimling proposed increasing the building permit fees from 1.5 percent to 1.75 percent of every $1,000 of project valuation, a 10 percent increase on business licensing fees across the board, adding 25 cents to the assessment charged to Portland Downtown property owners above the city tax rate, and increasing registration fees for short-term rental units.

At the same time, Strimling proposed to eliminate proposed fees for youth sports teams using city fields and fee increases for before and after-school programs and summer camps. The fees to youth teams have been a source of contention during budget discussions; the eliminations and reductions for all total almost $160,000.

While saying he had not fully vetted his revenue shifts with city Finance Director Brendan O’Connell, Strimling said he expects the increase in building permit fees to add $500,000 and the increase in licensing fees to add $120,000. A $15 increase in registration fees for long-term rental units could add $250,000.

Revising the fee schedule for short-term rental units could add $250,000, with single-unit fees increasing from $100 to $500, and fees for five or more short-term rental units increasing to $5,000 per unit.

While saying the market was right to increase the fees as owners can quickly recoup the costs, Strimling added his fee schedule would apply to both owner-occupied and non-owner-occupied buildings. The present fee schedule differentiates between them.

Strimling also proposed spending cuts large and small, postponing seven positions to fiscal year 2020 and reducing new waterfront and insurance claims positions to half-year funding.

At the same time, the mayor also would return $150,000 to the budget to fund two community policing positions. Those had been removed by Jennings as they were unfilled, and city police have not been able to fill department-wide vacancies.

“I don’t want to take the positions out and have to refill them,” Strimling said. In prior comments, Jennings and Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said if the staff became available, they would find a way to fund the positions even if written out of the budget.

Strimling would also add $42,000 to fund the Opportunity Crew, which has provided work for city panhandlers.

While expecting Councilor Spencer Thibodeau to offer an amendment to pay for implementing the new pesticide regulations covering city properties, Strimling wants to add $100,000 himself.

Finally, Strimling said he will also ask councilors to expand the property tax relief program that will be offered to residents age 62 and older beginning next year. The initial funding is expected to be $250,000. The program itself and any expansion have no bearing on the fiscal year 2019 budget.

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

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling reviews amendments to the $247 million municipal budget he proposed Monday.

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.