2013-03-01 / Front Page

Officials not sure about PW garage

Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A new public works, parks and transportation facility has been at the top of the wish list for city of South Portland staff and city council for nearly a year. At a workshop on Monday, Feb. 25, Finance Director Greg L’Heureux presented a detailed financial plan for the new building planned off of Highland Street, where the current transfer facility is located.

City councilors agreed with the staff’s assertion that there is a pressing need for a new public works building, but some expressed hesitation about whether 2013 is the right year to put the plan in front of voters.

Residents are likely familiar with the problems with the current public works facility on O’Neil Street, which the council has discussed in various meetings and workshops since May. City Manager Jim Gailey said the building, built in 1933, is outdated, inadequate and possibly dangerous.

“We have some asbestos present and lead paint around building trim,” Gailey said.

Transportation Director Tom Meyers said public works employees are physically inconvenienced while working on machinery because the building is so dilapidated.

“Imagine you’re in your kitchen making dinner and you’ve got to do it on your knees. Sometimes you’ve got to crawl on your belly, that’s kind of what our mechanics have to do right now,” Meyers said.

City councilors agreed with the urgent need for a new building, but seemed split about whether the city was ready to roll out a new project in the context of the current financial climate.

Mayor Tom Blake said he would support efforts to market the new public works facility and educate the public if the project continues on track for a November 2013 bond referendum, but he has doubts about asking South Portland residents to pay more taxes when many are already struggling to balance their checkbooks.

“Simply because we have the ability to make them afford it doesn’t mean we have to do it,” Blake said.

He also expressed concern about the budget picture, which officials expect will be difficult because of rollbacks in state funding. Blake said he would be “very uncomfortable” telling staff members they would be laid off, if it came to that, while simultaneously moving forward on a $20 million project.

Because of his reservations, Blake called himself the “odd man out” on the council, but councilor Alan Livingston expressed a similar opinion.

“I’m not convinced yet. I want (the new facility), but I need more. Right now, I would have trouble going to November, because right now I’m not sure if we do it, we win,” Livingston said.

Livingston and Blake’s fellow councilors seemed to support moving forward with a referendum in November. Councilor Patti Smith noted the city would be able to cross off its last major capital need off its list, and Councilor Melissa Linscott focused on a strategy to educate voters in the coming months about the importance of a new facility.

Finance Director Greg L’Heureux presented three different payment options to the council, all with a separate price tag. In the first, construction would start in November 2014 on a $19.5 million bond, and staff would move in late 2016. However, that option would significantly impact the city’s property tax rate, adding 46 cents per $1,000 of valuation, or about $85 on the median home in 2017.

The second option would split construction into two phases, setting aside nearly $6 million of the cost to be finished in 2017. That would smooth out the impact on taxpayers, but increase the total cost to $21.7 million.

Councilors preferred L’Heureux’s final financing option, in which the transfer station would be replaced in 2015 and work on the full project would begin the following year. The total cost of the project would be similar to the first option, but the tax rate hike would be delayed to avoid the compounded effect of the public works project and the ongoing high school building project.

“Any time we can smooth out the troughs and the high points, to me it makes more sense,” Smith said.

Gailey told councilors the staff needs direction on how to proceed sooner rather than later.

“I can’t stress enough the need for staff to really understand where the council’s stance is, as we are about a month and a half away from really needing to roll this project out,” he said.

However, councilors said they needed some more information before a making final decision, including a detailed report of cost savings the new facility would bring. L’Heureux estimated covering the public works vehicles and busses would save $8 million over 50 years, the useful life of the building, but the council wanted some more hard numbers.

“We need a little more data on this, most of these (projections) appear to be ‘guestimates’ and we need something a little more solid,” councilor Jerry Jalbert said, although Jalbert added he would be willing to go forward with the project and leave it up to South Portland voters.

The council asked Gailey to bring more data to another discussion of the project this spring.

“We’ll try our best,” Gailey said.

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