South Portland voters face $14M question on Public Works headquarters

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Colchester Road resident Albert DiMillo Jr. loves decorating his yard for Halloween.

But amid the chainsaw-wielding maniac, caged skeleton and undead creatures surfacing from his lawn, DiMillo pointed to a homemade placard expressing his opposing a $14 million bond for a new municipal services facility.

“The scariest thing on this lawn is my sign,” DiMillo said.

But Russ Lunt, who spent 34 years driving plow and dump trucks for the city, said it is frightening to expect the Public Works Department to continue to operate on a six-acre property in a residential neighborhood, bordered by O’Neil and Pitt streets.

“They need this so badly,” said Lunt, who is spending his retirement as an ebullient advocate for the project proposed to be built at the city recycling center off Highland Avenue. It would provide new, expanded and updated space for the city’s Public Works, Transportation, and Parks and Recreation departments, at a total projected construction cost of $15.7 million, including funds already set aside by the city.

DiMillo may not win at the ballot box on Nov. 5, but he could earn a recycling award for his signs. In 2010, they were printed to oppose a $41 million bond to renovate and expand South Portland High School. It was a job DiMillo argued, unsuccessfully, could be done for no more than $25 million.

At least twice, he has brought the signs out to urge voters to oppose school budgets. Now the signs have cropped up to advertise his argument that the city could rebuild the public works facility on Meeting House Hill, with all needed modern amenities, for no more than $5 million.

All it takes are strips of tape and a marker to renew DiMillo’s disdain for city spending.

“The only benefit of this is making some employees happy,” he said.

Lunt, meanwhile, set a brisk pace Monday as he walked the facility that dates to the 1930s, pointing out the lack of modern maintenance equipment, undersized bays that require technicians to make repairs on their knees, inadequate sleeping arrangements for plow crews, and lack of shelter to protect city equipment.

“It was atrocious when I started here,” he said.

At the doorway to the maintenance bay, Bill Dubeau hunched over the rear of a plow truck as Lunt pointed to the vintage ceiling fans used to ventilate the building.

“We are working back in the ’40s here, caveman-style,” Dubeau said.

The city’s proposal would consolidate the three departments in a 60,000-square-foot complex that would ultimately cost $22 million, including interest on the $14 million bond.

The city has plans to set aside $2 million for construction, and has scaled back the project by eliminating 50,000 square feet of interior vehicle storage, now considered part of a second construction phase.

If approved, the impact of the 20-year bonds would first be felt in fiscal year 2017, according to City Manager Jim Gailey’s presentation on the city website.

With the retirement of $914,000 in city debt in fiscal years 2017 and 2018, Gailey and city Finance Director Greg L’Heureux estimate construction bond debt service will add 7 cents to the property tax rate in 2017 and 2 cents more to the 2018 tax rate.

Beyond that, debt service will decline as a portion of the budget. The cumulative effect as of July 1, 2017, would be $22.26 per year on a home valued at $190,000.

DiMillo said local taxpayers are already bound for a shock because revisions to the state’s “circuit breaker” property tax relief program have changed refunds to tax credits, while reducing overall relief.

“There’s a lot of people who are going to be surprised,” he said.

DiMillo said sleeping quarters for employees during storms are likely needed no more than 10 times annually, and he sees no benefit to consolidated locations for the three municipal departments.

He also wondered why the city would need as much room for transportation services, if the local bus service ends up merging with the Greater Portland METRO service, which is now under discussion.

In July, Public Works Director Doug Howard said the new facility could reduce energy costs without the need to heat and cool at least seven buildings used by the three departments.

Interior fleet storage would also reduce time needed to prepare plow trucks for storms, and reduce the amount of fuel used to warm them up.

Howard said the Meeting House Hill neighbors will also be happy to see the departments leave, because of heavy vehicle traffic on O’Neil Street and the noise from things like back-up alarms on city vehicles.

“This place is a working operation 24 hours a day,” Lunt said. “When we dump stuff, it can sound like a gun going off.”

DiMillo discounted neighborhood concerns about noise and space.

“Most of the homes there were built after Public Works, (people) chose to live near a facility,” he said.

Kent Street resident Kevin Hanscombe said he and his family did choose to move into their home about a year ago, but partly because they heard it was possible the facility would be moved.

“You do hear the beeping, but I hear buses fueling up more than anything,” said Hanscombe, whose home is at the dead end looking over a yard filled with Public Works trucks.

He supports the bond, not because of inconvenience to him, but because a recent tour of the facility revealed how antiquated it is.

“I really think they need a new facility,” he said, although he’s not sure how the vacated land will be used.

Gailey’s presentation depicts two concepts for residential development, but as DiMillo noted, no one is quite certain of the environmental condition of the land. In February, Gailey said a preliminary study showed the presence of asbestos and lead paint.

A more detailed study, not listed in bond and construction estimates, could cost about $35,000, Gailey said.

Election Day is Nov. 5; polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. District 1 voters cast ballots at the Boys & Girls Club, 169 Broadway; District 2 polling is at the American Legion Hall, 413 Broadway; District 3 and 4 residents vote at the Community Center, 21 Nelson Road, and District 5 residents vote at the Redbank Community Center on MacArthur Circle West.

Absentee ballots can be obtained online or at City Hall until 6:30 p.m. Oct. 31, and returned until 8 p.m. on Nov. 5.

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

Sidebar Elements

South Portland resident Albert DiMillo Jr. recycles a sign printed to oppose a high school bond in 2010 to one opposing the proposed $14 million bond for a new Public Works, Transportation and Parks and Recreation facility. DiMillo believes the existing Public Works headquarters can be rebuilt for $5 million.

Retired South Portland Public Works Department driver Russ Lunt, right, says the lack of proper maintenance areas is one reason voters should support a $14 million bond to build a new facility off Highland Avenue. Mechanic Bill Dubeau, meanwhile, works on a plow truck spreader Monday at the O’Neil Street headquarters.

Plans for the proposed facility for the South Portland Public Works, Transportation and Parks and Recreation departments off Highland Avenue, at the current site of the city recycling center.

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.