2013-03-29 / Front Page

City budget sees minimal increases

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Mike Pock has attended two meetings as a South Portland city councilor, and he said the budget process has already been an “eye-opener.”

Pock said before joining the council his primary goal would be to make every effort to ensure South Portland residents are not unfairly burdened with a hefty property tax hike this year. Now that the council has started digging into the budget line by line, Pock believes city staff have done an “excellent job” avoiding a significant municipal budget increase.

City Manager Jim Gailey presented the 115-page municipal budget for the upcoming year to the city council on Monday, March 18, along with a 20-page introduction. The proposed $28.8 million budget is up slightly from last year’s adopted budget of $28.6 million.

The city will need an additional $214,000 in property tax revenue to fund the new municipal budget. That would add an additional 6 cents to the mil rate to bring the municipal tax rate from $5.10 to $5.16 per $1,000 of valuation. To cover the increase, a South Portland homeowner whose property is valued at the median level of $195,000 would see an increase of $11.70 on next year’s property tax bill.

The $214,00 in additional tax revenue is significantly less than the $500,000 figure Gailey estimated in January. The initial increase, he wrote in the introduction memo, came from additions in health care costs, cost of living adjustments, and loss of municipal revenue that resulted from “the state of Maine taking aim at local government’s revenue streams.”

The governor’s proposed biennial budget would eliminate the municipal revenuesharing program that provided $1.8 million to South Portland last year. In addition, Gailey noted, the biennial plan would change the homestead exemption and circuit breaker program to increase the burden on some taxpayers.

To meet those challenges, staff made further reductions in the budget between January and March to pare down property tax bills. An $80,000 line item for municipal paving projects will be cut under the proposal, as will $40,000 in contributions to the Visiting Nurses Association and Home Health Visiting Nurses.

The budget proposal also suggests discontinuing membership in the Greater Portland Council of Governments, an organization that offers data, mapping, transportation and economic services to municipalities in the area. South Portland has been a member since 2007. Leaving the organization will save the city $25,000.

The council began the budget process on Monday, March 25 when it looked at Gailey’s proposal for the capital improvements program and heard from several department heads about the municipal budget.

The capital improvements program proposes spending $3.7 million from various funding sources, including grants and the general fund balance, to pay for various improvements in a number of departments.

Included in the capital improvements program are $10,000 for a security camera system at the South Portland Public Library’s main building. Library Director Kevin Davis said the system is necessary to help police identify suspects accused of wrongdoing in the library because staff have trouble seeing everything that happens in the large space.

Also included is $10,000 for the parks and recreation department to purchase a golf cart to transport individuals around Wilkinson Park fields and a cross-country ski groomer to tend to the trails along the Greenbelt Walkway.

The program also provides $30,000 for a scheduled replacement of all police department handguns and $165,000 for the public works department to improve various city sidewalks.

The council was scheduled to continue the budget process in a workshop Wednesday, March 27, after the Sentry deadline. Meanwhile, the board of education will review the school budget in a workshop scheduled for Thursday, March 28. Then, the two will come together to review the entire general fund budget in a public hearing on Wednesday, April 3.

South Portland Superintendent Suzanne Godin presented two different budgets to the board of education on March 11. The “needs-based” budget, she said, would address the school administration’s priorities and would not affect student programs.

However, that model does not fulfill the council’s request to raise last year’s tax rate by no more than six-tenths of a percent. The alternative budget does meet that guidance, but would cut several positions, as well as the high school hockey program.

If the proposed municipal budget and needs-based school budget pass without any changes, the city would need $1.6 million in additional property tax revenue to cover cost increases. That would add 50 cents per $1,000 of valuation to property tax bills, meaning a homeowner whose property is worth the median value of $195,000 would pay $3,315 in property taxes, up from $3,217.

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