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s-spbudget-010209 City, schools hesitate on pay freeze

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City and school leaders say they won’t bring union leaders to the table to discuss a possible freeze in salary increases unless it is absolutely necessary.
The idea was brought up during a joint budget meeting in December with the City Council and School Board. Eighty percent of each budget goes to wages and benefits.
The School Department is scheduled to spend about $1 million in contractual pay raises for its 631 employees during the fiscal year that begins July 1. The city, meanwhile, is scheduled to pay total increases of $480,000 to its 180 union and 160 non-union employees.
City Manager Jim Gailey said he will not bring the unions to the table unless it is absolutely necessary. Department heads are currently working on their 2010 budgets and once they are submitted to the manager’s office, Gailey said he would determine what steps would be needed to balance the budget.
“Until I know where we come in, I can’t say salaries are going to be frozen,” he said.
Gailey said the city will be conducting regular contract negotiations with several unions whose agreements expire in July. If pay freezes are needed, he said there will be a forum for that discussion.
The budget outlook is particularly bleak for the schools, which face an $875,000 reduction in state education subsidy in the current budget. The schools expect a cut of at least that much, if not double, next year.
Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said she has not met with any school union leaders.
“As we begin building the budget, I’m going to be exploring all options,” she said.
The district just inked a new contract with the administrators union that will add another $20,000 in expenses to next year’s budget.
Councilor Linda Boudreau suggested exploring a pay freeze for the upcoming budget, suggesting it may be the only way to salvage city services from being cut beyond repair.
Presumably, the schools, looking to plug a $1.8 million to $2.75 million hole in next year’s budget, would need to take more drastic measures than the city. Some of those measures could include layoffs, pay-to-play athletics and increasing class sizes.
The fiscal picture for the schools is so bleak, School Board Vice Chairman Richard Carter said at the joint meeting, the district may have to consider closing one of its elementary schools.
South Portland has an additional elementary school and middle school over state standards. As a result, school spending is always in excess of what the state establishes under its Essential Programs and Services model, which determines the education subsidy.
However, Godin said comments about closing a school were blown out of proportion. Although the district will closely examine all spending that exceeds the state’s EPS figure, Godin said closing a school is not really an option.
“That’s not even on the radar,” she said.
Godin said administrators are building their budgets and are expected to meet with her in late January. At that point, she will decide what additional steps are needed to meet the budget.
The city and schools agreed to a 3.5-percent limit on raising taxes for next year’s budget. That would require a 47-cent increase in the property tax rate, or a total tax increase of $100 on a median-priced, single-family home valued at $230,000.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net.
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