South Portland uses state aid windfall to reduce property tax

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SOUTH PORTLAND — After learning recently that the city will receive an additional $884,000 in state education subsidies for the upcoming school year, the City Council Monday unanimously allocated $480,000 for property tax relief.

The remaining funds will be put into School Department reserves.

The city will also receive additional municipal funds, including $8,000 more than expected in Homestead Exemption revenue, $271,000 more than expected in Business Equipment Tax Exemption revenue, and an additional $20,000 in general assistance.

City staff also expect to receive 70 percent of eligible general assistance expenditures, which will generate upwards of $50,000 in additional revenues, according to a memo from City Manager Jim Gailey. 

Factoring in school and municipal reimbursements, residents will see a fiscal 2016 tax increase of only 1.75 percent over last year: a reduction of 33 cents from the amount approved in June, to $17.40 per $1,000 of valuation, Gailey said.

“A 1.75 (percent) tax increase is on the lower side for the greater Portland area,” Councilor Tom Blake said. “I’m pleased that we’re able to take that number to taxpayers.

“In a year when we’ve had nothing but bad news coming from Augusta, the past week has been good news, and I’m hoping that it continues,” Blake said. 

“The city manager has done an extraordinary job this year in the budget,” Councilor Claude Morgan said. “These low numbers are commensurate with his imagination and hard work.”

Conservation easement 

Councilors also unanimously approved a conservation easement deed to the South Portland Land Trust for the 2.3-acre parcel at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets. 

The Thornton Heights lots, formerly the play area for children who attended Alice Sawyer School, is undeveloped. When commercial zoning for the lot was floated about a year ago when investors were interested in possibly building a Dunkin’ Donuts on the property, residents and members of the abutting Congregation Bet Ha’am urged the city to protect the lot as open space. 

Kate Lewis, vice president of the land trust, said the lot at 25 Westbrook St. is “one of the (city’s) most vulnerable spaces.”

Granting an easement on the property will protect “one of the few green spaces in one of the city’s gateway neighborhoods; it provides public access for a variety of possible uses to benefit all users; (and) it responds to calls for actions from residents all over the city,” Lewis said.

For at least the next year, however, the parcel will continue to be used as a lay-down yard for ongoing city maintenance in the Thornton Heights neighborhood, a fact that makes the hasty establishment of an easement seem unnecessary, Marilyn Riley of Augusta Street said.

“I still don’t understand why this must be processed outside of the Open Space Committee that the council appears to be putting in place very soon, along with a probable moratorium from selling any of these spaces,” Riley told the council. 

“The lay-down yard will prohibit any work done on the property for a year. My question remains: Why the hurry? It doesn’t really make any sense,” she said.

But Morgan said he thinks establishing an easement, despite the delayed public use, is still necessary. 

“I think for me, moving forward, this is a property that the city has pulled aside for a set of circumstances that are not true of other properties,” Morgan said.

Because the city has worked through “a public process for over a year,” determining what its use should be, the easement is fitting, Morgan said. 

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.