2013-03-08 / Front Page

Forum pits candidates

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — There were disagreements at a candidates’ forum between District 1 City Council hopefuls, but each candidate agreed the significant impending state budget cuts to municipal funding would be at the top of their priority list.

Richard Carter, Michael Pock and Robert Foster debated that issue along with their views on economic development, real estate taxes and a new public works facility at the forum on Tuesday, March 5, hosted by the South Portland/ Cape Elizabeth Community Chamber.

South Portland would take a $2.8 million hit in total state funding if a biennial budget proposed by Gov. Paul LePage passes. State legislators have not yet voted to accept, reject or modify LePage’s budget, which seeks to eliminate the state’s $283 million revenue-sharing program.

“We are facing a budget situation I have not seen on the city side in the 22 years I have been here,” Carter said. “The most important thing we can do is work with representatives in Augusta to mitigate the tremendous cuts South Portland could be facing.”

Foster agreed. He said the city is facing “painful cuts” and must “look at what is essential” to make sure South Portland’s schools and city services maintain the high level residents expect.

“We’re all on the same page,” Pock said of the candidates’ top priority.

However, Pock had a different strategy to cope with cuts from the state.

“I find city and school departments both have a surplus of money,” Pock said.

He hopes the city will be able to “weather the storm by using that surplus without affecting the quality of services.”

Pock said he would not be in favor of any property tax increases to make up for the revenue gap. Finance Director Greg L’Heureux has previously said a property owner whose home is worth the median value of $195,000 would see a $326 increase in the tax bill if the governor’s proposal passes and the city makes no spending cuts.

“I would not be in favor of any increase. Leave it where it is and find money elsewhere in the city,” Pock said.

Foster also hoped the city could minimize the tax increase on property owners to 2 percent or lower, a figure recently suggested by the city council. Otherwise, he said, residents who are already struggling “are going to be cold, they are going to be hungry and that is not good.”

Carter called a two percent increase in the tax rate “manageable” and said it was preferable to layoffs.

“It’s easy to say we don’t want to lay anybody off. Our highest expense is our people,” Carter said. “Any indication we can cut back and not impact people, that’s just ludicrous.”

Both Foster and Pock said they support putting the proposed public works, parks and transportation facility on hold for another year because of budget uncertainty and the ongoing cost of the high school – although both made clear they recognized the city’s need for a new building.

Carter also called the building’s condition “deplorable.” He supported sending the bond to voters this November, then possibly waiting to actually begin construction in order to reduce the tax burden.

The fourth candidate for council, Rob Schreiber, was unable to attend the forum because of a prior work engagement. Stefanie Veneziano, a friend of Schreiber’s and a South Portland resident, read his opening statement.

“Rob believes we need to strike a healthy balance for South Portland to continue to be a great place to live, work, learn and play as we grow. This means continued support for our city’s excellent schools, a community and business-friendly environment, and a stable tax rate,” Veneziano said.

All South Portland residents are able to vote in the special election, which will be held Tuesday, March 12. Polls open at the South Portland Community Center at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

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