2013-06-28 / Front Page

Public works campaign begins

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – South Portland Public Works Superintendent Mark Lorello pointed up to the row of trees that line the edge of the department’s O’Neil Street property, which ostensibly provide a buffer for sound and sight between the city’s property and the neighbors.

“We get calls occasionally, but a lot of people at this point are used to it,” Lorello said.

He was referring to complaints from neighbors in the dense neighborhood about the sound of the beepers on the city’s vehicles. The sound often is heard in the early morning hours as buses pull out for their first run or plow trucks hit the road after a storm.

On the other side of the parking lot, Public Works Director Doug Howard gestured toward the garage behind him that holds a few city vehicles that need maintenance. The airflow in the garage is poor, Howard said, but his real concern is the facility is simply too small to provide employees with enough room to jack a vehicle up on a lift and stand underneath it. Instead, mechanics have to work on their backs.

“I worry about them pulling a muscle because they don’t have the proper leverage,” Howard said.

From now through November, the city of South Portland will do everything it can to share these stories with voters to convince them a new $14 million public works, parks and transportation facility is necessary. The building would be located on Highland Avenue at the site that now serves as the city’s transfer station.

That voter communication effort started Saturday morning, June 22, when Lorello, Howard and other city employees hosted an open house at the current public works and transportation facility to show residents the issues with the outdated building, which was built in 1930 and added to in 1983.

For the next six months, the city’s public information campaign will include neighborhood association meetings; Youtube videos; tours held during open houses at the facility that will include coffee and doughnuts; Facebook and Twitter updates; plan boards displayed in prominent locations throughout town and a pamphlet in the mail.

The South Portland City Council is unanimously in favor of the plan, and councilors offered additional suggestions to connect with voters at its workshop Monday night, June 24. Councilors suggested honing in on the fact that payments for the facility will coincide with retiring debt in three years in an effort to ease the burden on taxpayers.

Councilor Patti Smith suggested reaching out to influential voters in a “grassroots” campaign, and even stopping by neighborhood block parties to spread the word.

The ideas and scope of the public information campaign are wide-ranging, but the effort started slowly Saturday morning.

Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings said he chatted with only a handful of citizens who stopped by O’Neil Street Saturday, but that was to be expected on a warm summer morning with children in South Portland recently out of school.

“We didn’t expect a flood of people,” Jennings said.

The city hopes to do a better job reaching community members this year than it did 10 years ago, when a referendum to move the public works facility to the former Durastone cement plant on Wallace Avenue, at a much lower cost, was narrowly defeated.

A decade after the failed vote, city staff say the problem has only gotten worse. During storms, more than a dozen public works employees share a small space called the “dugout,” with one bathroom. In the main living room area, several cots placed close together create a zig-zag pattern in front of a weight machine.

Richard Leo, who works in construction for the public works department, said the benefit he is most looking forward to is the added storage space for tools. One of the buildings at the O’Neil Street facility has been condemned and is unusable, which means storage space is tight, although Leo says he is not making any excuses.

“We have to make it work,” Leo said.

Despite the possible advantages of a new, 65,000-square-foot facility, Leo is not letting himself get too optimistic. Since voters neglected to support a facility 10 years ago, he is concerned they might not change their minds this time around.

“I don’t know if it reached the public or not, but we’re trying to educate the public as much as we can,” Leo said.

Want to comment on this story? Login to our website at sentry.mainelymediallc.com and let us know your thoughts.

Return to top