SOUTH PORTLAND — The four candidates vying for two at-large seats on the City Council discussed their positions and ideas in a lively debate last week.
The two-hour forum, held on Oct. 21 in Council Chambers, was sponsored by the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Community Chamber and televised by South Portland Community Television.
Each candidate delivered a three-minute opening statement before fielding questions from the audience. The debate ended with two-minute closing statements.
Candidates touched on topics ranging from the council’s working relationship with the School Department, ideas for economic development, council health insurance, the role of government, and how to make government more responsive to residents.
But much of the forum was dedicated to the $41.5 million bond to renovate and expand South Portland High School.
Albert DiMillo Jr. was the only candidate to oppose the bond, which is supported by incumbent Councilor Tom Blake, and candidates Alan Livingston and Donald Russell.
In fact, DiMillo, whose only campaign sign advocates a “no” vote on the bond, reiterated his opposition to the school plan throughout the debate, regardless of whether the question related to the school or economic development, prompting criticism from other candidates.
“I do believe that Mr. DiMillo is a one-issue candidate,” said Blake, who along with Russell suggested DiMillo intentionally exaggerates the numbers he routinely cites as evidence.
Resident Susan Adams, a founder of the RenewSPHS political action committee, asked the candidates what they would tell residents like her, who are considering leaving the city if the high school bond isn’t approved.
Blake told those residents “not to abandon ship” and to redouble their efforts to find an acceptable plan, a position echoed by Russell. Livingston, a math teacher at Cheverus High School, said he was confident the bond would pass.
DiMillo, a retired corporate accountant, said a new, scaled-down plan could be developed within three to six months. “If you don’t want to wait that long for a plan, then you should leave,” he said.
Since voters will be casting ballots for two candidates, one resident asked the candidates to identify who else, beside themselves, they could support.
While Russell said he would vote for Blake, and Blake said he supports Russell, Livingston said it was “not a fair question.”
DiMillo, however, gave the most interesting answer – one that drew an audible response from the more than 20 people in attendance. He said he would not vote for any other candidate and will instead write in the name of his wife, Linda.
“A vote for any other candidate is a vote against me,” he said. “Don’t vote for any other candidate, because they are the opposite of what I stand for.”
When asked about their ideas for economic development, DiMillo said the city needs to lower its taxes and not approve the school bond.
Russell, a marketing professional, said the city should better market itself and not over-regulate or over-tax businesses. Instead, it should partner with local banks to offer low-interest loans to fledgling small- and micro-business owners who complete a course in marketing, and continue efforts to establish a wholesale energy company to reduce utility costs, he said.
Blake pointed to a new revolving loan fund, fed by federal grants, to help small businesses and the city’s ongoing efforts to bring the Renewable Energy Consortium to the city as proactive as economic development tools.
Livingston said the city should aggressively promote itself to business and concentrate its efforts on better utilizing the Main Street corridor, and streetscaping there should resemble Knightville-Mill Creek.
Candidates were asked about the issue of councilors receiving taxpayer financed insurance, which can cost the city more than $10,000 per councilor. While the City Charter states that councilors may receive compensation of $3,000, it doesn’t address the benefit, which the council approved in the 1970s.
DiMillo repeated his promise to accept neither the $3,000 stipend nor health care. Livingston said he is open to the discussion, while Russell said the issue, though not a priority, could be revisited by getting a firm legal opinion about the meaning of the word “compensation.”
Blake defended councilor health care and said that if it is eliminated the city should consider increasing councilor stipends. “I do believe there are a lot of good people who would not be able to run without compensation,” he said.
When asked about the budget, Russell said the city should use its “force of will” to pressure the Legislature to allow the city to levy it’s own “self-determination taxes,” such as a local-option sales tax or a hotel tax.
Blake agreed, saying the city would greatly benefit from a $5 surcharge on the more than 1,500 hotel rooms in the city.
Livingston said he would be concerned about raising taxes on businesses. DiMillo dismissed it outright.
“We don’t have a revenue problem in South Portland,” he said. “We have a spending problem.”
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or email@example.com