SOUTH PORTLAND — The city is proposing to add new positions in next year’s budget, including an economic development director and a part-time sustainability assistant.
If approved, a new economic development director would start on Jan. 1, 2018; the assistant city manager is now responsible for many of the city’s economic development duties.
Although South Portland homeowners may see an increase in the property tax rate, a corresponding increase in the homestead exemption will offset some of the increase.
During City Council workshops held March 27 and 29, councilors also discussed adding a building and grounds manager and a municipal services facility custodian.
They also may extend the hours of some part-time employees, and add funding to extend some positions.
Police Chief Edward Googins also told councilors he wants to add a Police Department employee to provide assistance to people with substance use disorder, although the position was not included in his fiscal 2018 budget proposal.
Googins told the council Monday that of the 378 people who died of drug overdoses in Maine in 2016, “seven of those souls were residents of this community.”
In 2016, he said, there were 370 drug-related incidents in the city, and so far there have been 73 cases in 2017, including three fatal overdoses.
“I truly believe that we as a department and we as a city need to do more to facilitate people being headed in the right direction,” Googins said.
Googins also said officers are trained in the deployment of Narcan, a prescription drug that blocks opioids and can reverse an overdose. He said officers used Narcan half a dozen times so far in 2017, and all but one time succeeded in reversing an overdose.
“Officers are trained for the immediate crisis for the immediate situation. We are not trained, nor should we be in the clinical aspects of dealing with this problem,” Googins said.
He added he would also like to see the position be a hybrid that also handles mental health issues. Googins said in 2016, the department received 487 calls that were related to some sort of mental health crisis. The total to date for this year is 99.
“Mental health and substance abuse go hand in hand,” Googins said.
Googins estimated the position would cost the city about $50,000 before benefits, and would climb to $78,000.
Councilors decided to further discuss the request at a later date.
The proposed general fund for the city is approximately $85.6 million, which is an increase of 3.36 percent over this fiscal year. The general fund covers municipal, school and county operations.
The city expects to collect about $62.6 million in property taxes, an increase of about $1.6 million, or 2.66 percent.
If the budget remains unchanged, property taxes would increase to $18.36 from $17.70, or a 3.75 percent increase.
As a result of homestead exemption changes approved in the last biennial state budget, the homestead exemption would increase to $20,000 from $15,000, and work to offset some of the increase.
For a homeowner who owns a home valued at $200,000 and qualifies for the $20,000 exemption, the tax bill would be about $3,300, an increase of $30.30, or a 0.9 percent increase from this year.
The property tax amount for a homeowner without the homestead exemption would be nearly $3,700, an increase of $132.
South Portland homeowners can qualify for the homestead exemption if they are a permanent Maine resident and have lived in their home for at least a year. Residents can only claim one exemption, on their primary residence.
Homeowners who don’t have a homestead exemption have until April 1 to apply for the exemption for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. Applications submitted after the deadline will apply beginning next year, but residents only have to apply once.
City Manager Scott Morelli said, “Overall, it (the budget) funds some important items and I think it maintains South Portland’s history of reasonable tax increases.”
Morelli said taxes increases in the last five years haven’t been as high in South Portland as in other Maine communities.
“No one likes to see tax increases and we have held the line and kept things reasonable,” Morelli said.
On Wednesday, April 5, the council will hold a public hearing in City Council chambers for both the city and school budgets.
South Portland also offers a senior property tax assistance program for residents 70 and older who have been a resident of the city for at least 10 of the past 12 years. Residents must apply on or before April 14 to qualify, and must reapply yearly. Any credits or refunds will be applied to the May 2017 tax bill.