2017-03-31 / Front Page

City tax bills expected to climb 3.75 percent

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Maine, as all longtime residents know, has two additional seasons on top of the usual quartet of winter, spring, summer and fall, both of which happen to come jointly at this time of year.

There’s mud season, of course, which is already making itself felt. And then there’s municipal budgeting season, and that’s underway too, with both the South Portland City Council and the city’s board of education meeting in workshop sessions this past week to hammer out new spending plans.

Combined, the proposed 2017-2018 budgets of school Superintendent Ken Kunin and new city manager Scott Morelli – who is presenting his first plan after being sworn into office two weeks ago – add $2.68 million in new spending.

Adding in county taxes, the general fund, which includes that plus the school and city operation plans, is up 3.36 percent, to $85.56 million for the fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Counting the sewer user and enterprise funds, up 1.37 percent and 1.08 percent, respectively, South Portland’s total budget will top $100 million for the first time.

On the municipal side, spending is projected to go up 4.41 percent, to $34.03 million. However, when factoring out revenue, including an expected 11.2 percent jump in excise tax collections, and a $500,000 transfer from the city’s undesignated surplus fund, the need from taxes will be $18.42 million – up $126,979, or 0.69 percent.

School spending, meanwhile, is up $1.24 million (2.61 percent) to $48.92 million. Of that, the school department will need $41.55 million to come from local property tax payers, an increase of $1.4 million (3.40 percent) over the current year. Cumberland County taxes, meanwhile, are up $93,942 (3.75 percent), to $2.6 million.

That results in a total need from taxes of $62.58 million – up $1.62 million, or 2.66 percent.

That tax is divvied up based on property valuation, which will be based on a snapshot of the city as it stands April 1. The valuation will not be finalized until later in the summer, but if projections hold, all South Portland property should come out as being worth $3.4 billion, combined.

If that prediction holds, the mil rate based on the budgets as presented, will climb from $17.70 per $1,000 of assessed value, to $18.36 – an increase of 3.75 percent.

In other words, the median single-family home in South Portland, assessed at $230,000, can expect a property tax bill next year of $4,222 – an increase of $151.

“It should be noted, that in terms of property tax increases, South Portland stacks up well against peer communities,” Morelli wrote in his presentation to the city council. “Between 2012 and 2017, our tax rate increased by $1.60, or 9.9 percent. Of the 79 communities in Maine designated as ‘service centers,’ the median tax increase during the same period was 15.5 percent, meaning South Portland’s tax rate increase was well below what most of these communities experienced.”

“In fact,” Morelli wrote, “55 of these communities saw larger percentage increases than South Portland. This supports the notion that city staff and elected officials have been successful in keeping tax increases relatively low.”

Morelli’s assessment did not include a tally of how many of the service centers, if any, underwent town-wide revaluations between 2012 and 2017, which would have had an impact on mil rates.

Morelli’s budget, crafted in large part by his predecessor, interim manger Don Gerrish, with guidance from the council, adds four new positions to the city payroll, while expanding hours for six others.

On the table is a buildings and grounds manager, responsible for oversight and maintenance of all city buildings. That position would be hired during the year, at an expected cost of $70,193 for eight months’ work.

Less expensive in the short-term but more so on the long run would be a new economic development director. That person would be hired Jan. 1, 2018, costing $50,408 for the year, and increasing to $100,816 for fiscal year 2019. Morelli also noted an additional impact, given that economic development duties have previously fallen to the assistant city manager. That allowed a portion of his salary to be paid out of revenue from tax increment financing (TIF) districts. Those dollars will have to come from the regular budget once the new director is on board.

Also new is the need for a custodian at the municipal services complex now under construction off Highland Avenue. That person will work 30 hours per week at an expected cost of $24,422 for the year.

Meanwhile, the office of Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach is expanding. She’s due to get an assistant starting Nov. 1 who will work three days per week for $19,288.

Meanwhile, with the completion of a new seven-bay garage at the new Highland Avenue garage, a city mechanic is expected to be elevated to the role of fleet manager, responsible for the maintenance of all public works, parks, public bus and fire department vehicles. That should add $14,055 to the annual paycheck for that person.

Getting expanded hours will be a library assistant (34 hours per week to 37.5, at an additional cost of $14,800 for the year), a public safety secretary (also 34 hours to 37.5, adding $7,470), a public works laborer (for an additional four months during the year, costing $23,664), a recreation superintendent (also for an extra four months per year, at $33,825), and a safety coordinator (from 30 hours per week to 37.5, at a cost of $11,453).

On the school side, plans call to eliminate two elementary school teaching positions that went unfilled this year, as well as one middle school teacher. Those changes are driven by an expected decrease in enrollment to about 1,455 elementary students and fewer than 700 at the city’s two middle schools.

Meanwhile, Kunin is calling on the addition of a school nurse (at $37,598), two van drivers (each working 30 hours per week at $76,106 combined), a part-time math coach ($29,993), and a part-time high school teacher ($40,207), the latter to fill in for an approved sabbatical.

“This is a particularly challenging budget in uncertain times,” Kunin said, pointing to an expected decrease in state aid of $305,479. However, should the Legislature amend the state budget proposal of Gov. Paul LePage to restore those dollars, that will not necessarily lower local tax bills.

According to Kunin, to mitigate the impact of the cut, as well as a contracted $1.3 million increase in salaries for regular classroom teachers, he took $500,000 from the school department’s undesignated reserves, while also increasing the draw from capital accounts for technology and carryover from federal grants for increase special education costs.

“Should the state funding picture improve, we would strongly recommend reducing reliance on all three methods of funding to meet what are ongoing

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