Reduced role for library board clears 1st hurdle in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a plan to reduce the Library Advisory Board’s oversight of daily operations at the city’s two public libraries.

The council also accepted more than $57,000 in grants from the state, including $32,000 to fix the Municipal Boat Ramp near Bug Light Park, and gave an initial go-ahead for a new funding mechanism for public transportation.

Changes for the Library Advisory Board have been in the works since last summer, when recently unionized library workers agreed on a contract with the city after three years of negotiations and mediation.

The ordinance governing the board’s role, enacted in 1967, gave sweeping powers to the council-appointed group, including oversight of operations, staff and the hiring and performance of the library director.

The proposed changes, scheduled for a final vote on March 1, explicitly states the advisory nature of the board, leaving the library director in control of daily operations and responsible to the city manager.

The board will still have a seat at the table when hiring a new director, but the decision will ultimately be made by the city manager. It will also advise the director in preparing the budget, except the portions dealing with personnel.

In addition to public relations and volunteer recruitment, the board will also oversee development of the library collection, recommend charges and fees to the City Council, and work with the library director to develop policies and long-range plans.

“This really brings the ordinance up to current times,” Councilor Linda Boudreau said. “It seemed in reading the past ordinance, (the board) acted more like a board of trustees for a non-profit library, as opposed to an organization that is part of the city.”

The changes were ironed out in a committee consisting of the city manager, library director, mayor, two current board members, a library staffer and a resident.

“As a diplomat would say, there were full and frank discussions of many points involving the relationship between (the board), the library director, the city manager and library employees,” Mayor Tom Coward said.

Concerns about those relationships prompted library workers to vote to form a union three years ago, specifically concerns over staffing and hours of operation.

Tensions were heightened last spring when a popular librarian was laid off when the teen room was closed at the Main Library. Following the layoff, some questioned whether the board should have had input in that decision.

Councilor Tom Blake said the ordinance changes were long overdue and represented a third – and “hopefully final” – step in addressing lingering issues at the library.

In addition to the union, the library recently completed a comprehensive facilities plan, he said.

“Over the last four or five years, we have had on-going issues with our public library,” Blake said. “I think this will take us into the 21st century with the library and the vibrancy I want to see at the library.”

Transit TIF

The council also gave preliminary approval to establishment of a new funding mechanism for public transportation, known as a Transit Oriented Development Tax Increment Financing District.

The proposal would allow the city to create TOD TIFs along major transportation corridors to capture 25 percent of the added land value for new developments.

Those funds, not to exceed $240,000 a year, may be used to fund operating costs for new bus routes or instituting new alternative transportation, like trolleys. 

The TIF was made possible largely through the efforts of Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser, who lobbied state officials last year to open up the TIF program to the new use. Previously, TIF funds could not be used to fund operating costs.

Haeuser said property owners whose land is contained in the new TIF district will see no change in their taxes.

“It’s a benefit to the residents of the city, not the property owners,” Haeuser said. “There is no rebate going to the property owner.”

Although the district is not expected to produce a short-term windfall for public transit, Coward said it lays the foundation for initiatives.

“This is a small acorn that we hope will grow into a large oak tree,” he said.

Harbor grant

The council also accepted  more than $57,000 in state grants, include $32,000 to replace a piling at the municipal boat ramp near Bug Light Park.

City Manager Jim Gailey said the grant was timely.

“Waterfront Director Tom Meyers reported that just within the last two weeks, we have had one of the pilings take a plunge into Casco Bay and the Fore River,” Gailey said.

The city also received a $25,000 grant for the state Office of Substance Abuse to ramp up efforts to combat under-aged drinking.

Deputy Police Chief Amy Berry said the grant will pay for extra hours for police to look for and break up under-aged drinking parties.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or