South Portland vote advances plan for affordable housing

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors by a 5-2 vote Tuesday approved a zoning change for a proposed $9 million affordable housing project at 611 Main St., the site of the former St. John the Evangelist Church.

Councilors also approved the school budget.

The nearly 2-acre Thornton Heights property includes a parish house and a school building. It has been vacant for four years.

Voting against the measure were Mayor Linda Cohen and Councilor Claude Morgan, who said the 42-unit project is too large for the neighborhood.

Residents of the neighborhood have repeatedly expressed concerns about increased traffic, noise and density as a result of the project proposed by the South Portland Housing Authority.

The change was recommended by the Planning Board in March, based on its compliance with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

Several residents Tuesday asked the council not to rezone the property, saying the neighborhood of tightly packed homes should not have to assimilate the large project. Jonathan James, of Thornton Avenue, said he is not against change, but feels this addition will be unreasonable.

Thirlmere Avenue resident Scott Mckeen said 225 residents signed a petition saying they did not support the project.

But Devin Dean said there are no other residential options for the lot. He warned that big-box chain stores would move into the area if the project is not approved, and the housing needs in the community would not be addressed.

And Don Cook said the city was built by blue-collar people who need affordable housing. “We’re talking about people here, not traffic, not a building. This will help 42 families,” he said.

The project will now go to the Planning Board for site plan review.

The agency needed the city to rezone the rear acre of the property. It was in a Residential A zone, while the rest of the parcel was in the Main Street Community Commercial zone. The property is bounded by Main Street, Aspen Avenue and Thirlmere Avenue.

The Housing Authority is under contract to purchase the property from Cafua Management for $1.2 million. Brooks More, SPHA director of development, said the agency will apply for a federal low-income housing tax credit to help fund the project.  More said four applications are usually selected each year, based on a point system for specific criteria, including the cost to build each unit. Notification of whether funding will be awarded is expected in December.

Cafua is the Methuen, Massachusetts-based company that bought the property in 2013, with the aim of building a drive-through Dunkin’ Donuts. That proposal was abandoned after it provoked vigorous opposition from neighbors opposed to the scale of the project.

If the SPHA plan moves forward, construction could begin as early as fall 2019, with completion expected a year later.

School budget

Councilors unanimously approved the $50 million school budget, which would raise taxes by nearly 4 percent – even after more than $400,000 in proposed staff positions were left unfunded.

Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin previously said non-tax revenues are expected to be down more than 10 percent due to a reduction in state subsidy. The School Department is expecting a potential $800,000 shortfall in state aid this year, and is planning to receive $6.1 million in state subsidy.

Kunin explained in an earlier interview that the state allocation is based on two factors: property valuation and enrollment. The schools had 19 percent of the total cost of education paid for by the state last year. This year, the city is facing a 3 percent drop in aid, which is significant, he said.

The superintendent said the loss of state aid will in part be offset because the state, in a change to the way vocational education is funded, will pay South Portland’s $370,000 share of funding for the regional Portland Arts and Technology High School.

An increase in expenses has been held to 1.7 percent, but due to the reduction in revenue, the result is a proposed 3.9 percent increase in the tax rate – about $1.6 million – which, according to Kunin, is much higher than the School Department would like.

The budget is up 1.7 percent from this year’s $49.2 million, and the amount to be raised by taxes is $42 million. Another $7 million would come from the department’s fund balance and sources like athletic sponsorships and tuition payments.

Kunin said in a meeting with city councilors earlier this year that South Portland will look at several key points to form the fiscal year 2019 school budget, including the increase in special education needs, maintaining current staffing levels, and renovations needed at two elementary schools.

Regular instruction costs are up the most, at 6.5 percent, followed by an increase in special education costs, up 4.1 percent.

Funding regular instruction makes up 41 percent of the budget, with special education absorbing 19 percent. Debt service and facilities maintenance each make up about 9 percent of the pie, followed by student and staff support.

He estimated that maintaining staff and service levels could require an additional $1.2 million in spending to meet contractual obligations for staff salary and benefits, which make up 80 percent of total school expenses. He said most of the action in constructing the budget is in analyzing staffing needs.

The voter referendum to validate the budget is slated for June 12.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the current, $49 million school budget last June. It was an increase of $1.2 million, or 2.4 percent, over the previous year.

Juliette Laaka can be reached aty781-3661 ext. 106., or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net or on Twitter @JulietteLaaka

 

The former St. John the Evangelist Church at 611 Main St., South Portland, will be razed to make way for a 42-unit affordable housing unit.

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