2014-04-25 / Community

In the News

Sign of the times

At its April 23 meeting, rescheduled from the usual Monday session due to the Patriots Day holiday and falling after deadline for this week’s Sentry, the South Portland City Council was slated to take up a sign request from the South Portland Farmers Market.

After two years staging Thursday afternoons on Hinckley Drive, the market will relocate to city hall parking lot beginning May 4, where it will set up 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. OnApril 4,market manager Caitlin Jordan filed a request with the code enforcement office to place 20 signs throughout the city to advertise the new date and time. Each sign, to be posted from May to October, will measure 27-by-18-inches. Proposed sign locations include Broadway, the Casco Bay Bridge and Highland Avenue, as well as Alfred, Evans, Main, Market, Ocean, Pillsbury, Preble, South Kelly, Wescott and Westbrook streets.

A request for a single 4-by-8-foot sign on Broadway following the market’s 2011 debut in Thomas Knight Park prompted the move to Hinckley Drive and introduced much rancor into council dealings with the market that lasted through the most recent season. During the 2011 debate, a majority of councilors, including current members Maxine Beecher, Tom Blake and Jerry Jalbert, spoke against the Broadway sign, saying it would be unfair to grocery stores in the Knightville/Mill Creek area to allow roadside signs for the farmers market.

“Are we opening ourselves up to a lawsuit by allowing signage for a private business on public property?” said Blake, asking at the time for a legal opinion from City Attorney Sally Daggett.

That opinion never came as the sign request died in workshop following Jalbert’s proposal that the market move to Hinckley Drive.

City finances shop

At its April 23 meeting the South Portland City Council was scheduled to vote on a request to dip into a rarely used revolving loan fund to help launch a local consignment shop.

Approved unanimously by the city council in July 2010 and funded with $300,000 from existing tax increment financing (TIF) programs, the fund was designed to assist development of new small businesses and to retain existing ones, creating and preserving jobs in the city. However, only a handful of loans have been made from the fund, which allows up to $10,000 per project.

The current request, submitted by David and Michelle Raymond for a business at 161 Ocean St. to be known as Heirloom Consignment, requests the full amount available. The Raymonds are investing $25,000 into the startup. According to City Manager Jim Gailey, DiCara Training and Consulting of Brunswick was retained to review the Raymond’s application. It recommended approval, suggesting a 5.25 percent interest rate on the loan, payable to the city at $189.86 per month for five years. If the council approves the loan, the city would retain a first security interest in all business assets. A three-year projection provided with the loan application predicts net income of between $27,000 and $54,000 on annual revenue of $180,000 to $250,000.

Extension expected

At its April 23 meeting, which took place after the deadline for this week’s Sentry, the South Portland City Council was expected to approve a sixmonth extension on its tar sands moratorium. First approved in December and set to expire May 5, the moratorium bars installation of any equipment in the city’s waterfront district needed to load diluted bitumen onto ships docked at local wharfs.

A three-person draft ordinance committee has been at work since the start of the year on a permanent ban to the Canadian oil product, feared by local environmentalists and residents for its presumed deleterious health impacts if spilled, or as a result of local processing needed to burn off additives needed to pump the product through the pipeline from Montreal.

What was not on the April 23 agenda was change to the council’s standing rules discussed at an April 14 workshop.

At that session, councilors debated several proposed changes stemming from a May 2012 incident in which four councilors flash mobbed a planning board meeting, testifying for and against change in venue for the farmers market.

Councilors debated a formal ban on allowing councilors to speak before planning boards and other city committees, but ultimately decided not to infringe the free speech rights of its members when acting as individuals, not as spokesmen for their peers.

“I don’t think that’s fixable,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher. “I think leave it alone and hope councilors know when to go and not go (to a board or committee meeting).”

However, the council did agree a change was needed in what city residents are allowed to do when approaching the podium. Several councilors referenced the ongoing tar sands debate that has raged for more than a year in South Portland, often pushing council meetings past the four- and even fivehour mark.

Although councilors agreed with Tom Blake’s assessment that “the last year had not been standard,” most agreed with Councilor Melissa Linscott, who said residents should not be allowed to comment twice on a subject, once during one of two open comment periods scheduled into each council meeting, and again when the item comes around on the agenda.

“You shouldn’t be able to speak to an issue for five minutes, and then get another five minutes on the same topic,” said Linscott, noting that dozens of people on both side of the tar sands issue exploited the privilege.

“We really do go the extra yard (in allowing public comment) but I feel the last 12 months really has exposed a weakness in our system,” said Mayor Jerry Jalbert. “At some point, we have to think about how we run our organization efficiently.”

The council also discussed extending the time allowed for individuals to address the council at its workshop sessions from two minutes to five, for the sake of consistency with regular meeting rules.

Proposed changes to the council’s standing rules are expected to be voted on at an upcoming meeting.

Contracts ironed out

At its April 23 meeting, the South Portland City Council was scheduled to vote on a request from City Manager Jim Gailey to transfer $97,400 from various city accounts to pay for recent union contracts signed with fire, parks and public works employees after the July 1 start of the current fiscal year.

The new contracts, approved by the council in September, grants officers a 1.5 percent pay raise this year and next, with a 2 percent hike allowed for those who have served more than five years.

The weekly stipend paid to officers who have EMT licenses jumped from $25 to $31.50 for a basic EMT certification, from $30 to $36.96 for EMT-1 and from $40 to $51.94 for the paramedic level. The new rates were retroactive to July 1. Next year, the rates rise to $37.80, $44.10 and $62.58, respectively.

Officers agreed to terminate a longevity stipend of $1.35 per week for each year of service for new officers and freeze the bonus, which had been capped at 20 years, or $27 per week, for current officers. Fire command officers also have agreed to discuss new health insurance plans offered by the Maine Municipal Employee Health Trust.

The 50 members of the firefighters union, including all firefighters below the rank of lieutenant, also agreed to mid-term health insurance negotiations for new plan options. Firefightersgota2percent pay raise effective March 1. New rates will range from $16.03 per hour for a provisional firefighter to $20.28 per hour for a Level II firefighter with 20 years of service.

The parks and public works contract, approved by the council in March, gives workers a 1.5 percent increase in base wages retroactive to July 1, 2012, a 2 percent pay hike retroactive to March 1, and a new 2 percent raise effective July 1.

However, the union also gave up some ground on health insurance. The employee contribution for premiums rose to 1.5 percent effective Jan. 1, while child and family plan contributions rose to 11 and 15 percent, respectively. The union also agreed to freeze next year’s “cash-inlieu” payment made to employees who get their health insurance elsewhere at current rates, while accepting a 35 percent reduction in that rate for anyone hired after July 1.

Requests increase for tax relief among seniors

Based on comments made in an April 14 workshop, it appeared likely the South Portland City Council would add $15,000 to its tax assistance program in an April 23 vote, and possibly more.

According to City Manager Jim Gailey, 159 applications for a property tax relief program for senior citizens were submitted, qualifying for $58,395 in aid. However, the city budgeted $32,700 for the program, which would have reduced the $400 maximum allowance to $224. By taking $15,000 from the city’s contingency fund, maximum rebates would increase to $327. However, at the April 14 workshop, a number of councilors appeared willing to fully fund the qualifying rebate requests from the $64,000 available in the contingency fund.

Construction contract expected to pass

The South Portland City Council was scheduled to vote April 23 to award a $1.34 million contract to Shaw’s Brothers Construction of Gorham to replace 1,500 linear feet of sewer pipe along Maine Mall Road. Shaw’s provided the lowest of three bids submitted, which ranged as high as $1.69 million.

The project is part of an ongoing landscaping and drainage improvement plan launched by the Long Creek Watershed Management District in hopes of diverting runoff from the endangered stream, which runs through the mall district. The district will plant trees this summer along Main Mall Road and in the median of Gorham Road in attempt to cool the water that runs off the pavement in the area into the stream, making it hard for wildlife to flourish.

South Portland partnered with the district on the project and, according to City Manager Jim Gailey, its portion of the bill will be $276,614, most of which is in the budget for his 2015 capital improvement program. About $32,000 will come from an existing sewer user fund reserve account.

General assistance payouts are up

According to a report submitted to the South Portland City Council for its April 23 meeting by General Assistance Program Manager Kathleen Babeu, the city spent $70,477 to aid needy families between Dec. 1, 2013 and Feb. 28, 2014. That’s up 25.3 percent from the $56,246 spent during the same timeframe last year, although it is down 8.8 percent from the high of $76,656 spend between December 2008 and February 2009, at the start of the recent recession. Aid, which included money given to help cover rents and mortgage payments, heating fuel, utility bills and burial expenses, as well as to purchase food, prescriptions and baby supplies, helped 530 people in 220 families during the reporting period, up from 450 individuals aided last year.

Greenbelt trails open in Cape Elizabeth

Mud season is over in Cape Elizabeth, which announced Tuesday that it has lifted a ban on bicycles and horses on the town’s Greenbelt Trail system.

The town had issued the ban to avoid damage to more than 15 miles of trails that it maintains. Only one Gull Crest trail will remain off limits. “Trails at Gull Crest will remain temporarily closed to bikers and horseback riding until they are drier,” said Town Planner Maureen O’Meara in an April 22 release.

Historical society has home for now

The Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society is slated to move into vacant space at the police station following an April 14 vote of the town council. At that meeting, councilors unanimously approved spending $37,500 from the town’s undesignated fund balance to reconfigure the station, built in 2002 a cost of more than $1 million.

However, in 2009, the town consolidated emergency dispatch services with Portland and South Portland, leaving about 20 percent of the 9,319-square-foot station, including a much of 16-by-24-foot room designed Cape dispatchers as, essentially, “wasted space,” according to Town Manager Michael McGovern.

Meanwhile, the historical society has been on the outs as a library planning committee has worked over the past year to pare down a library renovation to something more palatable that the $6 million plan rejected by voters in 2012.

The historical society is currently housed in the library basement, and had hoped for space in any new building, but has since lost out to budget cuts. There is a possibility that the society could get one of the three buildings that make up the current library, the 19 century Spurwink School. However, the police station is expected to be its home for at least the next year. The approved funds will reconfigure the entrance to separate society space from the police station, providing both separate entrances and protecting the privacy of people interviewed by police.

“One reason we are trying to do things minimally is to leave our options open for the future, but no matter what we know we would need to segregate that space,” McGovern said. “If we have people coming with domestic issues or whatever, there’s a clean separation.”

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