2012-03-30 / Front Page

City proposes small budget increase

By Kristy Wagner Staff Writer

As the South Portland City Council began hearings for the fiscal year 2013 budget on Monday, individual department budgets reflected many decreases, resulting in a marginal increase overall.

The total proposed operating budget for the city is $85,450,107. This total reflects an increase of $468,899 or .55 percent from the current budget.

The city’s mil rate is $16.10 per $1,000 of valuation. With the proposed budget increase, the mil rate would go up by 37 cents to $16.47 per $1,000 of valuation. The median home in the city is valued at $180,000, after a homestead reimbursement of $10,000. That means the average homeowner’s tax bill would increase by $66.60. City Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said the proposed mil rate remains tentative until the school department finalizes its budget for the next fiscal year.

Monday’s workshop included hearings on proposed budgets for the departments of general assistance, human resources, travel and training, civil service, water resource protection, planning and development, street opening, sewer impact, parks and recreation, finance, assessing, debt, retirement, insurance, and tax increment financing.

Town Manager Jim Gailey highlighted each department’s reductions and increases of more than $1,000 before turning the floor over to department directors to explain their proposed budgets in further detail.

Gailey highlighted a reduction of $53,500 in the general assistance department’s rental assistance.

“This is a major reduction due to better management of that account,” Gailey said.

General assistance provides financial resources to residents who have difficulty meeting basic needs, such as housing, food, fuel and other necessities.

The department proposed a reduction of $3,500 to the food budget, but called for an increase of $1,000 for the medical and laboratory expenditures and an increase of $2,500 for household funds.

South Portland General Assistance Administrator Kathleen Babeu said there is more need for nonfood items in the community. She cited paper towels, hygiene products, laundry detergent, and toilet paper as items many underprivileged residents have trouble obtaining. She said the reduction in rental assistance was largely due to her department helping people save in other areas so they could comfortably pay for a roof over their heads.

“Our needs aren’t any less in the community. (Residents) are coming in to look at a sustainability plan,” Babeu said. “They’re going to apply (money saved) toward rent. This is where money needs to go so we don’t have homeless situations.”

Councilors commended Babeu on her budget as an improvement since the last fiscal year.

Mayor Patricia Smith said the council would revisit the general assistance budget if the state made any “serious cuts” to the department’s funding in its budget.

The city’s human resources department proposed a total increase of $40,810. The majority of the increase reflects a rise in the human resources training budget by 335 percent. Human Resources Director Don Brewer said the cost for training has increased drastically due to drug and alcohol testing services, among other training expenses for all municipal employees.

“One of areas we’re focusing on this year was emphasis on employees in our staff,” Brewer said.

Brewer went on to explain the need for “high quality and cost-effective staff training” and the high number of employee trainings in the past year, including the training of supervisors.

“Other than (training costs) our budget is relatively flat,” Brewer said.

Increases of more than $1,000 included $1,385 for salaries and $1,500 for education reimbursements. Decreases of more than $1,000 included a drop of $1,750 for advertising and a drop of $1,838 for legal contracts.

The water resource protection budget proposed a total increase of $88,852. Patrick Cloutier, director of the department, said the increase adds 15 cents to the sewer user rate, but he said sewer use has seen a steady decline, which has taken a slight toll on the department’s revenue.

Councilor Tom Blake asked if the decline was due to commercial users and Cloutier said it was not.

“It’s residential use. Actually, the commercial sector is really strong,” Cloutier said. “This is something we have seen a steady decline in over the last decade. It’s not so much cost as it is people being conservative.”

Cloutier said the poor economy in recent years has resulted in people limiting their water use.

The treatment plant’s overall budget decreased by $12,551 and was largely due to a $38,936 reduction in the plant’s electricity budget.

Every division in the water resource protection department reflected increases in funds for salaried and hourly employees.

The sewer maintenance budget rose $19,968 and engineering costs increased by $13,110.

Water Resource Protection’s budget did succeed in a significant reduction of $319,347 due to decreased bond principals, interest, and administration fees.

The city’s finance department proposed a budget of $946,217 – an increase of $5,567 from last year.

“Our budget is basically flat except for wages and maintenance,” L’Heureux said.

He said training costs were figured into the human resources budget that reduced the finance budget by $8,875.

The proposed budget for insurance and benefits for city employees reflects an increase of $206,196, but worker’s compensation decreased by $36,000, long term disability by $1,400, health insurance decreased by $5,367, and wellness funds decreased by $7,500. L’Heureux’s proposed budget reflected a $32,265 total increase for general obligation debt, which also had a notable decrease of $60,000 in bond principles and $8,975 in bond interest.

Pension obligation had a proposed budget increase of $9,145 with a reduction of $23,120 in bond interest.

The planning department proposed an overall budget reduction of $7,472 due to reduced budgeting for heating fuel, electricity and telephone service. Codes proposed a budget reduction of $14,200. Tex Haeuser, director of planning and codes, said the reduction in codes was due largely to decreasing the budget for streetlights and traffic lights.

“We kept (codes budget) down through the painful process of street lights to a certain extent,” he said. “Hopefully, (Central Maine Power Co.) won’t raise rates.”

Parks and Recreation was the last department to share its proposed budget, which reflected an overall decrease of $17,441. The department’s administration budget reflected an increase of $60,083, mostly to cover salaried wages and a small increase in hourly wages.

The department proposed a reduction of $19,514 for the parks budget due to a decrease of $26,568 for salaried employees and a reduction of $4,875 for electricity. $2,250 budgeted for training was eliminated from the parks budget and incorporated into the human resources budget.

Recreation had a total budget reduction of $21,613. Decreases in budgets for heating fuel, gas and oil accounted for $6,970 of the overall recreation budget reduction. Recreation eliminated $3,100 worth of training and those costs were budgeted in the human resources account. The recreation department also reduced the electricity budget by $9,780.

The municipal pool budget reflected a decrease of $36,397 due to the elimination of training costs, a reduction of $32,500 in heating fuel costs, and a reduction of $7,800 in spending on electricity.

“I want to account for the given fact we have made a significant push in investing in the pool facility and specifically in the pool liner,” said Tim Gato, interim director of parks and recreation. “Another thing not listed here is we are making an attempt to successfully apply for a grant that might line us up to do phosphate treatment and that’s something, if it works out, could have a good effect on the budget.”

Gato said if the department received the grant, phosphate treatments would not start until fall, so he did not include projected impact in the proposed pool budget.

Budget hearings continued on March 28 and a joint public hearing on both the municipal and school budgets is scheduled for April 4.

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