2015-01-23 / Front Page

City tax increase may top 10 percent

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Every winter at about this time, school and city officials in South Portland meet to set budget projections for the coming fiscal year. And, every year, amid warnings that nothing can be known for sure until the state budget it set, the outlook is nonetheless dire.

But this year, things look especially grim.

In a joint session Jan. 14, officials warned that South Portland’s budget for the coming fiscal year, to start July 1, could jump by as much as 10 percent. That, they say, could mean the largest increase in local property taxes in nearly a decade.

The biggest bite, as always, will come from the schools. According to outgoing Superintendent Suzanne Godin, her final budget is proposed to go up $2.2 million, or 7 percent, absent any cuts in programming or staff.

“That's what we need when we're building a needs-based budget," she said.

On the municipal side, City Manager Jim Gailey foresees a 3.8 percent increase in his budget.

Ostensibly, the point of the meeting was for the council to set a bottom line for the school board on a budget increase. While school directors control line item spending, the city council gets to say yea or nay to the final number.

With so much uncertainly stemming from the biennial state budget submitted by Gov. Paul LePage — including the final fate in the legislature of proposed cuts to revenue sharing, homestead exemptions and teacher retirement contributions, not to mention the annual moving target that is the state’s local education subsidy — many at last week’s joint session, especially on the school board side, called the meeting “premature.”

Councilor Tom Blake agreed.

"I am very uncomfortable tonight coming up with a percent," he said.

However, most on the council agreed with Mayor Linda Cohen, who laid out a target, but fretted over the impact on taxpayers.

"I can come in somewhere between 3 and 5 [percent],” she said, “but I'm very concerned about compounding taxes on our citizens."

At the high end of the range was new Councilor Claude Morgan, who said he could vote for a total budget hike of as much as 5.5 percent. However, he left open the door for an even larger increase, should councilors and school board members fail to find the necessary agreeable cuts, or if numbers out of the state capital take a turn for the worse.

“It's a shot in the dark,” he said. “At this point, this really is the blind leading the blind.”

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