PORTLAND — Despite reservations on the part of some councilors, the City Council moved school and city budgets closer to enactment this week without major changes.
Councilors on Monday got their first look at a budget that reflects changes the Finance Committee requested last week.
The committee asked the School Board to reduce its proposed budget by $175,000, and suggested that a proposed four-year technology lease-to-purchase investment, which accounts for $526,000 in fiscal 2013, be shifted to the city’s capital improvement plan.
The changes reduce the school budget to $94.2 million, an increase of $5 million over current spending.
Combined with the city budget, it would mean a 2.9 percent property tax increase for city residents, down from an originally proposed increase of more than 3 percent.
“I’m OK at 2.9 percent,” Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said last week. “We’re below 3 percent by a small amount. I’d be willing to listen to what it would take” to reach an even smaller increase, he said.
But Councilor Jill Duson last week said she still thought 2.9 percent was too high. And Councilor Cheryl Leeman, in the special council budget workshop on Monday, said she has had a hard time simply doing her grocery shopping because residents approach her with concerns about the nearly $5 million dollar proposed increase in the school budget.
Monday’s workshop and first reading of the school budget by the City Council was sparsely attended. Final approval and scheduling of a May 15 referendum is expected at the council’s next regularly scheduled meeting on Monday, May 7.
The city budget will also receive a first reading on that date. The council will vote on that spending plan at its May 21 meeting.
School Board members, including Chairwoman Kate Snyder, and Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. characterized the budget increase Monday, as they have since the beginning of this year’s budget process, as necessary to maintain school quality after several years of budget cuts.
“I think we continue to be prudent year to year,” but the school system has reached the point where it needs to stabilize the budget, Snyder said. The schools should help retain Portland residents and attract new ones, she said.
Even with the proposed budget increase, the schools will continue to struggle with facilities that need maintenance, particularly the elementary schools, Morse said.
Chris O’Neil, a consultant representing the Portland Community Chamber, added some support. “To sell Portland,” he said, “we need to be able to sell the schools.”
Still, O’Neil said he did not attend Monday’s meeting with “a ringing endorsement” of an increase in taxes. Rather, he said, the chamber endorses the budget “process,” and encourages councilors “to wring more savings out of it.”