2015-06-12 / Community

School budgets approved by wide margins

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND/CAPE ELIZABETH – In light traffic at the polls Tuesday, voters approved nearly $70 million in spending on public education in South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.

According to South Portland City Clerk Susan Mooney, 3 percent of registered voters showed up at the community center on Nelson Road to vote on the $46.1 million school budget presented by the board of education for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. That spending plan was approved in the annual validation vote, 379-231, with 62.1 percent in favor.

Meanwhile, Cape Elizabeth enjoyed a comparatively more robust turnout of 11 percent, according to Town Clerk Debra Lane. Those voters gave the nod to a $23.5 million school budget, 635-236, with 72.9 percent in favor.

Although they approved the school budget by a wide margin, voters were more evenly divided on its overall appropriateness. In a non-binding referendum accompanying the budget validation question on the ballot, a majority of voters — 363, or 41.8 percent — said the school budget was “too low.” Meanwhile, 274 voters, or 31.6 percent, said it was “too high,” while the rest declared it to be “acceptable,” as the ballot termed it.

Cape’s next school budget is up $296,000 — or 1.3 percent over current spending. However, there will be no impact in local tax bills, thanks to a 4-3 town council vote on May 11 to trim $110,000 from the bottom line. Councilors Patty Grennon, Caitlin Jordan and Jamie Wagner opposed that move, preferring to cut just $50,000 — that being a compromise suggested by the school board, which complained of the council’s “11th hour” intervention.

At a May 4 meeting, the school board agreed to required reductions that will mean the elimination of new accounting software (saving $50,000), funding for improvements to the district website ($10,000), the school’s share of a proposed new human resources position to have been shared with the town ($35,000), and furniture and supplies ($5,200), as well assorted miscellaneous cuts ($10,300).

The total budget for fiscal year 2016 in Cape Elizabeth, which includes $9.8 million in municipal spending, $1.1 million paid to Cumberland County, and $465,000 for community services, comes to $35.2 million. According to Town Manager Michael McGovern, that will mean a 32 cent increase to the mil rate, pegging property tax assessments at $17.12 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

In South Portland, the approved school budget represents a 2.9 percent, $1.3 million increase in spending. However, that’s expected to add 39 cents to the mil rate, a 3.5 percent increase on the school side of the ledger based on a need of $39.7 million to be raised from taxation.

The city council has not yet voted on a municipal budget for the coming fiscal year. However, City Manager Jim Gailey has presented a total operating budget of $95.06 million for the coming fiscal year, up 3.17 percent from current spending.

In addition to the school budget, Gailey’s proposal includes $31.1 million in municipal spending (up 2.8 percent) and $2.4 million in taxes paid to Cumberland County (up 4.6 percent), along with sewer, enterprise and grant funding totaling $14.7 million.

The total need from taxes is projected at $60.5 million, up $1.8 million, or 3 percent. That is expected to mean an overall 57 cent increase to the mil rate, based on expected $3.4 billion citywide valuation when taxes are committed — an increase of 3.33 percent, setting the new property tax rate at $17.67 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

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