2014-03-21 / Community

Proposed tax bills could rise 4 percent

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Officials in South Portland have released preliminary budget proposals for the coming fiscal year, to start July 1, that, if adopted, would drive local tax bills up 3.91 percent.

Based on the state’s current $3.4 billion assessment for South Portland, a number which could change with the April 1 commitment date, local property tax bills would go up 65 cents, to $17.36 per $1,000 of valuation. Given the $200,000 median value of a single-family residential house in the city, the proposed tax hike would add $130 to the annual tax bill for that property.

At the March 17 City Council meeting, Colchester Drive resident Al DiMillo, a retired CPA with a history of berating school and city officials over the annual budget, appeared to make his case against this year’s spending plan.

In an email to city councilors, DiMillo noted that, for the three years ending June 30, 2013, actual city revenue was $4.9 million more than budgeted and actual expenses are $4.5 million less. That, he wrote, meant a total budget variance of $9.5 million over the past three years.

“The result of these budgeting errors is that the property tax rate has been at least 5 percent too high each of the last three years,” he wrote, adding before the council on Monday, “It’s not difficult. Just budget correctly, or, I should say, budget honestly.”

DiMillo also claimed that, compared to comparably sized cities like Augusta, Auburn, Bangor and Biddeford, the undesignated surplus in South Portland is “at least $10 million too much” given total net assets as of June 30, 2013, of $163.4 million. By budgeting closer to historical numbers and taking $10 million from surplus, South Portland could weather the coming year with no tax increase at all, DiMillo said.

The largest piece of the budget pie is, as always, public education. Superintendent Suzanne Godin has put forth a $44.7 million budget for the South Portland School Department. That plan represents a $1.7 million (3.96 percent) hike over current spending, of which $38.76 million is expected to come from local taxation. That’s a $1.65 million (4.44 percent) increase, jumping the school potion of the tax bill 46 cents per $1,000 of valuation, to a new school mil rate of $11.37.

The biggest driver of the school budget is contracted salaries, along with the cost of health insurance and other benefits, up $965,000 in all.

If the budget passes as proposed, the school department will see a net loss of three teaching positions. Godin hopes to add an eighth-grade teacher at Memorial Middle School and a specialist in teaching autistic students at the high school. The two positions are expected to cost $140,500.

Offsetting this is a cut of five elementary school teachers, based on declining enrollment. The cuts are expected in grades two and four at Dyer Elementary School, grades four and five at Skillin Elementary and grade three at Small Elementary.

Godin also sees a $284,000 increase in special education costs and $130,000 in additional spending needed for transportation. Classes in English-as-a-second language is also an increasing need, she said.

However, some positions could be spared, or increased costs mitigated, by late word out of Augusta. Godin’s initial budget proposal presumed a $4.6 million subsidy from the state, but the most recent estimates from the Department of Education put that number at $5.3 million.

“That $5.3 million is much better, but don’t get sold on it,” Godin cautioned school board members at their most recent meeting. “I can guarantee you it’s not going to look like that at the end of the day.”

The $29.74 million municipal operating budget for FY 2015 submitted March 17 by City Manager Jim Gailey is up $655,608 (2.25 percent).

Although recent work by the state legislature appears to have plugged a feared $800,000 loss in revenue sharing — Gailey now expects that fund to come up short just $100,000 — the city-side of the budget does have to account for four new positions.

A police detective, a police officer, and a deputy fire chief – all previously funded by federal grants, as well as a parks maintenance worker previously paid from a city golf course enterprise fund – all must now by picked up by the city. In each case, eventual local funding was a condition of the grant awarded to the city.

Inaddition,allcityworkersaregettinga2percentcostof living wage increase, at a cost of about $280,000.

The proposed budget also accounts for a 5.1 percent spike in the tax bill sent by Cumberland County Commissioners, which now wants $2.33 million from South Portland taxpayers for their share of running county government.

Budget Workshop calendar

• A school board budget workshop in South Portland was held Wednesday, March 19, after the deadline for this week’s Sentry. Future workshops are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on March 25 and 27 in the high school lecture hall, prior to final adoption of the FY 2015 budget by the school board, tentatively set for March 31.

• The South Portland City Council is scheduled to review the municipal budget for the coming year in a series of three workshops, starting at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 26, at the South Portland Community Center on Nelson Road. That will be followed by meetings starting at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, March 31 and Wednesday, April 2 in council chambers at City Hall.

• A public hearing of the joint municipal/school department budget is slated for 7 p.m. on April 9, at City Hall.

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