SOUTH PORTLAND — City Councilors on Monday approved the $43 million school budget for fiscal year 2014, and scheduled a June 11 referendum on the spending plan.
They also agreed, over some neighbors’ objections, to allow a Knightville coffee shop to place tables and chairs on the sidewalk this summer.
In took almost 90 minutes for councilors to pass 19 resolves detailing education spending on operations and debt service, despite lumping 13 together in two votes. The remaining resolves required individual votes in accordance with the School Reorganization Law passed by the Legislature in 2007.
If passed, the budget that takes effect July 1 will require $37.1 million in property tax revenue, a $1.9 million increase from the current budget. Included in the increase is debt service for the renovation and expansion of South Portland High School.
The new budget contains some uncertainties outlined by School Superintendent Suzanne Godin, who said deliberations on the biennial state budget submitted in January by Gov. Paul LePage could result in the loss of $213,000 in Maine Department of Education subsidies.
The potential subsidy loss is predicated on the idea a budget will be enacted that will not require local school districts to pay pension obligations now funded by the state. The proposed shift in pension obligations was presented by LePage, with $15 million added to the DOE general purpose aid to partially reimburse school districts for new pension contributions.
If the pensions continue to be state-funded, the $15 million will be removed from the state budget, and general purpose aid for local districts will be recalculated. South Portland schools could then see subsidy reductions of $764,000, but of that, $213,000 had been targeted for spending unrelated to pension obligations.
Godin said losing aid would result in a budget freeze.
“Property taxes will not go up one way or another,” Godin said.
Council acceptance of the school spending sometimes came grudgingly. Acting as chairman after Mayor Tom Blake turned over the meeting because of a sore throat, Councilor Jerry Jalbert compared School Department budget requests to his son asking for $50,000 to help pay for his wedding.
“I had to inform my son money does not grow on trees,” Jalbert said. “This is actually a similar process to me.”
Jalbert and Councilor Melissa Linscott said next year’s City Council and School Board budget discussions should have a wider focus on strengths and weaknesses and an assessment of how many goals were accomplished.
“We can provide the dollars, but what does that translate to?” Linscott asked.
Jalbert said he wants to avoid simultaneous discussions of department surpluses and program cuts, as occurred this year when Godin and School Board members sought to reduce spending unrelated to debt service. In January, councilors set a guideline limiting a property tax increase for school operations to 6 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.
“I think in particular teachers and kids feel threatened by that kind of message,” Jalbert said.
Councilor Al Livingston took a pointed and personal approach in his comments, criticizing the School Board for not holding up its end in terms of “trust and respect.”
Livingston, a School Board member before his election to the council in 2010, said the board should not have proposed to hire a grant writer early in the budget process and should be more forthcoming about spending details.
Still angered by the board’s refusal to reseat him on the high school building committee, Livingston at one point was asked by Blake to focus on the resolves at hand as opposed to broader criticisms of the board and its chairman, Rick Carter.
Following the unanimous school budget vote, councilors voted 6-1 for a $1 license agreement with owners Bill and Jeannie Dunnigan for limited outdoor seating at Cia cafe at the corner of Ocean and D streets.
Seating at three, umbrella-covered tables will be allowed through Oct. 15. The Dunnigans must also post signs prohibiting smoking and alcohol consumption.
The license was granted with the support of City Manager Jim Gailey, who said the trial period could help determine if a revision of city ordinances governing use of sidewalks is needed. Reconstruction of Ocean Street last summer created 8-foot sidewalks that Gailey said provide “ample enough room” for pedestrians and the tables.
The Dunnigans reside in the condominium building at 72 Ocean St., where Cia is located, and where some of their neighbors oppose the sidewalk tables.
Andrew Nyce and Thomas Marino were among owners of the Mill Cove Landing condos who asked councilors not to allow outdoor seating because of noise and safety concerns.
Nyce suggested there would not be enough room for people to pass the tables, especially those with limited mobility. Marino said he would be forced to keep his windows closed to avoid hearing conversations from the coffee shop customers one floor below.
Another condo owner, Margaret Stenberg, said she appreciated revisions made to the agreement after a May 13 council workshop, and later said the residents were trying to be good neighbors to the Dunnigans, who opened Cia in March.
Councilors Linda Cohen and Patti Smith said outdoor seating is what they envisioned as part of the neighborhood’s rejuvenation, while Blake and Livingston said they had reservations about making too many changes in the neighborhood in less than a year (the council recently appoved a two-hour time limit on Ocean Street parking between C and E streets).
Blake said he anticipates a council review of Knightville changes in July, but voted for the license.
Livingston said “we are creating a little bit of a monster we should not be creating.” He opposed the agreement.
Councilors also unanimously approved an extension of Gailay’s contract through Nov. 14, 2016. Specific terms will be finalized in November.