State aid to schools helps reduce South Portland tax rate

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Property values are up in the city and the School Board is giving some extra state subsidy back to taxpayers, which will reduce the tax rate.

A new tax rate of $18 – down from $18.30 the council approved April 5 – was announced, and the new school budget was formally adopted, during a combined City Council workshop and special meeting Monday July 24.

During the workshop, formation of an ad hoc Senior Citizen Advisory Committee and council goals were also discussed.

On July 12, the state released revised education subsidies and South Portland schools received almost $7 million, about $1 million more than originally anticipated.

The School Board Monday voted to return half of the $1 million to taxpayers, and the council ratified the move later in the evening.

But School Board member Karen Callaghan said the board struggled with the decision.

“When we saw the extra million, we wanted to keep more, but we decided to give half back … we could have used more,” Callaghan said at the special council meeting.

During the meeting, Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said the new tax rate represents an increase of 1.69 percent over the previous year. 

The owner of a $200,000 home – the value of an average house in South Portland, according to the most recent census in 2010 – would pay $3,600 annually, a $60 increase. A resident who qualifies for a homestead exemption, which increased from $15,000 to $20,000 this year, would see a tax bill of just more than $3,200, down $34.50. 

The state will reimburse the city 50 percent of the homestead exemption, down from 62 percent the Legislature promised last year. The exemption was changed during the recent budget process.

To qualify for the homestead exemption, residents must have owned a home in Maine for at least a year and filed for the exemption by April 1. 

The estimated tax rates assume there is no increase in property valuation, but L’Heureux said valuations are up overall. He attributed part of the increase to some large construction projects, such as the Sable Lodge retirement community at 74 Running Hill Road.

L’Heureaux also said some properties were far below the market value versus the appraised value, particularly near the ocean.  

Senior citizens

During the workshop, Councilors Maxine Beecher and Susan Henderson proposed that the council form an ad hoc Senior Citizen Advisory Committee “to ensure senior citizens in our community have access to services, enabling them to age safely and with dignity in the community where they have roots.”

The new committee would be tasked with conducting a needs assessment of those over 65 through surveys, focus groups and interviews with agencies and groups that work with seniors.

It would also identify available programs, identify gaps in services and develop a communications strategy to let seniors know about programs and services. Recommendations would be made to the council within 16 months of the formation of the committee. 

All council members and Mayor Patti Smith said they support the committee; the item will be added to a future council agenda. 

Councilor Claude Morgan said he would “absolutely support it,” and Councilor Linda Cohen called it “long overdue.”

Councilor Brad Fox quipped, “I know I’m aging in place right now and despite the conflict, I’d like to support this.”

Council goals

Services to help seniors age in place was one of the goals listed as councilors discussed future action items.

They also want to develop a waterfront master plan; a commitment to diversity in city council, committees and the workplace; a contingency plan for economic resilience; having streets and continuous sidewalks in great condition, and access to detailed data so they can make informed decisions on city policies. 

City Manager Scott Morelli said the council’s proposed goals will likely be scheduled for a vote at the Aug. 7 meeting. 

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or msochan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

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