Portland schools 'falling apart' as budget limits repairs

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PORTLAND — The City Council and School Board finance committees agree there’s not enough money in the capital improvements budget to fund every desired project.

At a joint meeting on May 28, City Councilor Nick Mavadones, who chairs the city’s finance committee, said both panels would have to “make tough choices” going forward about facilities projects.

“The reality is we have people in the city who are struggling with paying bills, paying taxes, paying for food and heat,” Mavadones said. “Traditionally people here support school projects, but I don’t think we should test them (with unnecessary things).”

The 2016 CIP budget is a five-year plan that calls for approximately $61 million in city and school projects, and is supported by city resources like the operating budget, fund balance and general obligation bonds. The budget for 2016 includes $14.7 million in municipal bonding and $4 million for sewer projects, with bonds to be repaid by user fees.

According to documents from the meeting, the full replacement cost of city and school assets would be $830 million. Reinvestment costs would be approximately $19 million a year. City Councilor Ed Suslovic said unless taxpayers are willing to pay more, these numbers are not sustainable.

“If it’s not sustainable, we’re not doing anyone any favors,” Suslovic said.

Suslovic called the limits of the budget “sobering,” and said the council should look at divestment of assets to offset the price of some projects, in order to “attack this from all perspectives.”

“If the choice comes down to doing an elementary school or a parking garage, I would rather do the school,” Suslovic said.

School Board Chairwoman Sarah Thompson told the committees it isn’t just the elementary schools, like the aging Fred P. Hall Elementary School, that need major renovations. She said the middle and high schools “are falling apart, too.”

“We need to know how much money we have to allocate,” Thompson said.

The School Department submitted its CIP requests to the council in January. The list for year one includes replacing the fire alarm system at Portland High School, replacing the boiler system at Riverton Elementary School, and buying a new school bus.

Mavadones said he hopes the School Board and City Council would go back and set priorities. That way, he said the council will be able to tell the schools how much is available each year.

“The numbers have to be smaller,” Mavadones said. “We can’t do everything for schools and at the same time do everything for the city.”

Both committees will continue to meet into June and July, before the council votes on the CIP budget.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.