Portland school budget gets 1st council hearing

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PORTLAND — City councilors Thursday will look at the $112 million fiscal year 2019 education budget.

Finance committee members from the Board of Education and City Council will hold a joint public hearing on the proposed budget, approved April 12 by a 7-1 School Board vote.

Council Finance Committee members have expressed mixed views of the school budget as proposed. Mayor Ethan Strimling has been fully supportive; Councilors Nick Mavodones and Justin Costa have said the budget contains a tax increase too large for property owners to absorb.

If passed by the City Council and by voters at a June 12 referendum, the budget would require $89.2 million in property tax revenues, an increase from the current $82.78 million.

While the budget was reduced from the original $113.4 million proposed by Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana, it would increase annual taxes on a property valued at $240,000 by $163.20.

When combined with the $247 million municipal budget proposed by City Manager Jon Jennings, the tax increase would be 97 cents from the present $21.65 per $1,000 of assessed value. The municipal side tax increase would be 29 cents if passed by councilors.

“We acknowledge this is a bigger ask of taxpayers than anyone would like,” School Board Chairwoman Anna Trevorrow said as the budget was forwarded to the City Council on April 18.

Trevorrow noted the increases were driven largely because the state Department of Education formula for subsidizing schools has caused substantial financial harm to the city.

The School Department is looking to fund a “$7 million increase in state expectations,” she said, driven in part by the fact the city can no longer charge other districts tuition for students attending Portland Arts and Technology High School.

Budget documents show the state Essential Programs and Services subsidy will decrease by a total of $1.4 million.

Trevorrow also said Botana had warned a large increase could be needed when the current $106.7 million budget was passed last year.

The continued increase in valuation of city properties will also reduce future state subsidies, Trevorrow warned.

The full City Council vote on the school budget is scheduled for May 14. Councilors can set the school budget amount, but have no say in how the money is spent.

On April 18, councilors also passed an amended fiscal year 2019 capital improvements budget of $18 million, with $15.5 million coming in new bonds.

Also in the plan are $1 million each in municipal and school fund surpluses and $460,000 redirected from prior CIP budgets. The new bonding could add as much as 5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to the fiscal year 2020 budget, city Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said.

The primary change to the original plan submitted by Jennings was removing $550,000 to replace lights at Hadlock Field in order to add $290,000 to complete remediation work at the Ocean Avenue landfill; $200,000 to fully fund sidewalk repair requests by the Department of Public Works; and $60,000 for repairs to Stroudwater Dam off Westbrook Street.

The amendment for dam work had been proposed by Councilor Brian Batson, while Strimling proposed to shift funding from Hadlock Field lights in part so the city and Portland Sea Dogs could examine ways to share the replacement cost.

Councilors also approved $16.1 million in bonding for sewer and stormwater projects that will be repaid through user fees.

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

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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.