South Portland council balks at land purchase

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Councilors said yes to natural gas boilers and bus tracking devices, but no to land acquisition, in a combined meeting and workshop Monday.

With the passage of an order allocating almost $127,000 to convert the heating system at Mahoney Middle School to natural gas, School Department Director of Maintenance and Grounds Russ Brigham said converting two boilers to natural gas and relining the school chimney could be completed before the new school year begins in September.

The contract was awarded to Portland-based Northeast Mechanical Services, the sole bidder on the project. City Manager James Gailey said the company is the only area firm licensed to work on the type of boilers at the school.

Councilors also approved entering a memorandum of understanding with 23 other municipalities comprising the Greater Portland Council of Governments to buy technology and tracking systems for public transportation.

Using GPS to monitor individual buses, the system will provide real-time information on the location of buses in area transportation systems, including any possible delays. The information will then be available online and via mobile apps.

City Transportation Director Tom Meyers said he would like to install message boards at bus shelters and the city public transpiration hub to provide the same information for riders who do not have Internet access.

According to a memo by Gailey, the total cost of the what is called the Automatic Vehicle Location system is not known, but the city has $123,000 available to contribute. The money is from grants, including $96,000 in federal funds.

After approving the agreement, councilors also approved a second memo of understanding with GPCOG to find common branding and marketing methods to draw riders to public transportation systems.

In a workshop following the meeting, councilors decided against making a bid for a property at 159 Cottage Road that is slated to be auctioned next month.

Gailey said the lot, owned by Getty Realty Corp., is the site of a former gas station and auto repair shop. It is now used by Tammaro Landscaping & Property Services. Posted auction signs drew the interest of city officials, including South Portland Public Library Director Kevin Davis, because it abuts the library property.

The building dates to 1965, the property was last sold in 1985, and Gailey said the lot and building are part of a company effort sell properties throughout the state.

Gailey and Davis said they saw benefit beyond library use for the land and noted a cleared site would add visual appeal and pedestrian access.

Traffic engineers have told Gailey intersection improvements where Cottage Road, Highland Avenue and Richmond Street converge are difficult to achieve because of a lack of rights of way.

“We are looking at it as a community asset,” Davis said, with a chance to buy the quarter-acre property for less than its $195,000 asking price. The property will be auctioned by Tranzon Auction Properties of Portland at noon Aug. 8.

Councilors did not discuss a specific bid even as they saw benefit to tearing down the building, but the possibility of soil contamination on the site posed a challenge.

“It might be that we don’t want it either,” Councilor Tom Coward said even as he doubted the corner is economically viable for any business.

Coward noted the property might be bought with a minimal bid, and the city would need to make a $5,000 deposit before bidding.

Mayor Patti Smith said Maine Department of Environmental Protection records show gas tanks were removed in 2006, but records indicate the site will need remedial work to remove hazards and a cleanup will be needed if the building is razed.

‘There’s no doubt it is an eyesore,” Councilor Al Livingston said. “However, I am concerned about the future costs.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Lawsuit against city dropped, for now

SOUTH PORTLAND — Resident Albert DiMillo Jr. has withdrawn a civil lawsuit against the city after Mayor Patti Smith agreed to reopen public discussion about councilor health-care benefits.

The discussion will be on an Aug. 13 council workshop agenda, but City Manager James Gailey said the workshop location has not been determined. Council workshops are typically held at the South Portland Community Center, but the center will be closed during its annual August shut down.

DiMillo said the offer to publicly discuss whether health-care benefits offered to city councilors violate the City Charter and the prospect of three new councilors taking office by early next year were the factors in his decision to drop the suit, which was filed in Cumberland County Superior Court in Portland.

DiMillo also said the protracted process of a hearing and possible city appeal of an unfavorable ruling meant it might be at least a year before any judicial resolution is reached.

With Councilor Maxine Beecher unable to seek re-election because of term limits and Councilor Tom Coward leaving his seat to become a Cumberland County Commissioner, DiMillo said he hopes new councilors would not need the health benefit and could sway a council vote next year to seek a charter change or eliminate the benefit.

Beecher, Coward and Councilor Tom Blake are the councilors now enrolled in the health insurance program.

DiMillo said he is also prepared early next year to refile the suit, which asks the court to stop compensation for councilors beyond the $3,000 specifically allowed by the charter.

— David Harry

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.