2012-11-09 / Front Page

City plans ahead for new PW facility

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – Thousands of South Portland residents headed out to the polls to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 6, then followed results of the presidential race as they came in later that night.

But while the country’s attention was transfixed on this year’s election, the South Portland City Council was already looking ahead to next November.

The council decided Monday, Nov. 5 to earmark $500,000 for what Finance Director Greg L’Heureux called a “savings account” for a possible new public works facility. But before the money can be used, South Portland voters will have to approve the bond measure next November.

The $500,000 will come from the city’s undesignated fund balance to begin preparation for the new facility if voters pass the referendum. If they decide otherwise, or if there is another pressing need for the city between now and November 2013, City Manager Jim Gailey said the money can be taken out at any time.

Gailey said city revenues from the 2012 fiscal year were strong as the economy continues its slow climb out of recession, and those improved figures allowed the city to have some money to put away in preparation for the new facility.

The price tag on the building has not been finalized, but it has risen as discussions progressed. Engineers from Sebago Technics first pitched the plan to the city council in May, and estimated it could cost about $10 million. But city staff sat down with engineers after that meeting to formulate a more exact estimate, and at the council meeting Monday, Gailey said the cost will likely be closer to $18 million.

The purpose of earmarking the money a year before the election is to reduce some of the financial burden on the taxpayer to build the new facility.

L’Heureux said at a July council workshop that delaying the referendum until 2013 would avoid hitting South Portland residents with the double burden of the public works bill coupled with the cost of the ongoing South Portland High School renovations. South Portland voters approved the high school renovations in a 2010 vote.

Before the referendum to fund high school improvements passed, the city had built up reserves in an account to help fund construction costs. Now, it is on a similar path in advance of next November’s vote.

The council voted 4-2 to approve the establishment of the new account, with councilors Rosemarie De Angelis and Alan Livingston opposed and Councilor Tom Blake absent due to vacation.

“We’re all living in an economy where everyone says no one’s saving for anything. This is our way of saving some money towards that building and not borrowing, if in fact it gets approved by voters,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher.

Councilor Tom Coward also supported the action and commended the council for “getting its collective head around planning for the future.”

“This should be an entirely uncontroversial act on the part of the city,” Coward said.

The action did draw some controversy, which may have been a preview of heated discussions to come next year.

Colchester Drive resident Albert Dimillo Jr. called the city’s justification for the need of the new facility “insane” and said the cost of the project far outweighs both the savings the city will realize, as well as the public benefit.

“Why in the world are we setting aside $500,000 for a project no one is going to vote for?” Dimillo asked.

De Angelis and Livingston were less critical of the project but thought the city should wait before it begins efforts to fund the facility.

“It feels a little bit to me like putting the cart before the horse,” De Angelis said. “I still would like us to get more public input in a workshop format.”

“I’d like a little more time before we do this,” Livingston added.

L’Heureux said there is no definitive cut off date before which the council must allocate funding, but the city thought now was a good time to start the process and show taxpayers the city is making an effort to set some money aside.

A new public works facility has been on the top of the city’s list of priorities for almost a decade. A bond measure was narrowly defeated in 2005 that would have moved the facility from its location on O’Neil Street to the former Durastone cement plant.

The facility has stood on O’Neil Street for more than 80 years, while the neighborhood around it became more and more residential, which has caused problems for families when snow plows noisily come in and out when snow is cleared in winter. Councilors and city staff have also said the dilapidated facility is insufficient to house the city’s public works equipment.

“I see where we are now as a money pit,” Smith said in May.

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