2016-08-26 / Front Page

City approves transfer of funds

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The piper needs to be paid, and at its most recent meeting the South Portland City Council adopted two transfer resolves to cover budget shortfalls.

Beefed up with cash infusions was the general assistance account, which had a $131,000 shortfall at the end of the fiscal year, June 30, and the “Clear Skies Ordinance Legal Defense Fund” set up to defend a lawsuit filed Portland Pipe Line Corp. against the city’s 2014 attempt to ban tar sands oil from entering the South Portland.

“Due to the nature and extent of the lawsuit, the city has hired special legal counsel with a preeminent energy and environmental practice, including an environmental litigation practice, to defend the city and its code enforcement director,” interim City Manager Don Gerrish wrote in a memo to the council.

That firm, Boston-based Foley Hoag, has billed South Portland $518,513 for its services through July 31.

In June 2015, the council appropriated $200,000 from the city’s undesignated fund balance for the tar sands fight. On Monday, it voted unanimously to transfer an additional $500,000.

With $21,622 in private donations made during the past year – including $5,600 accepted at the Aug. 15 meeting – that leaves South Portland with $381,054 in the Clear Skies Legal Defense Fund.

Mayor Tom Blake confirmed attorney Foley Hoag did not charge the city for legal advice dispensed when one city resident contacted the firm directly. Still, with more than a half-million spent and the case still to go before a judge — likely not until December, at least — some in the audience at Monday’s meeting were left shaking their heads.

“Boy, that’s awful,” Brigham Street resident Russ Lunt said. “That’s an awful lot of money for something not everyone in this city wanted, just a few very vocal people.”

However, Councilor Eben Rose said the fault lies not with the members of the grass-roots environmental group Protect South Portland, but with Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette, who in 2009 permitted a volatile combustion chamber needed to process tar sands oil, within the shoreland setback area. Although that permit was approved by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, and later allowed to lapse by Portland Pipe Line, the very fact that it has been permitted in a place it should not have gone was enough to get the ball rolling again when rumors rose that the company might be making a second go at a tar sands flow.

“If there is question about why we’re spending so much money on this, don’t look to the citizens who are just looking to have their laws enforced,” Rose said.

Meanwhile, filling the general assistance shortfall was more of a formality, one city Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said the council is not obligated to vote on.

“State law allows us to over expend for this, as well as for snow plowing, but we recognize it’s best to make it public — that we have accounted for that and there are resources to pay for those costs,” he said.

According to L’Heureux, the city is reimbursed by the state for 70 percent of it general assistance spending. Another $119,000 is expected to arrive soon, for a total reimbursement of $284,000, he said. That will leave the city with just $12,000 left to cover from what it budgeted for public charity last year.

That council at that time transferred that money from city’s contingency reserve account.

But need has not abated in recent months.

According to the most recent report filed by South Portland Director of Social Services Kathleen Babeu, the city paid out $32,072 to needy families in June. That marks a 60.3 percent increase from the amount in municipal charity given in June 2015.

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