2017-09-22 / Community

In the Know

SIDEWALK WORK — According to South Portland Public Works Director Doug Howard, his department is in the midst of a city-wide assessment of sidewalks, a goal set earlier this year by the city council.

“We had two interns who collected all of the data based on criteria we gave them and we are currently working with engineers at Sebago Technics to analyze that data to come up with cost estimates for repairs, along with places where new sidewalks may need to be connected into the network, and even places where sidewalks may need to be removed,” Howard told the council at a Sept. 6 meeting, noting that the minute mapping included everything from cracks to tripping hazards.

Sebago is slated to return a report in the next few weeks, Howard said, and he will present findings to the city council later this fall.

“This is going to go a long way toward prioritizing our sidewalk work,” he said.

“You can expect to have a conversation next year about capital budget requests related to sidewalks,” City Manager Scott Morelli told the council. “Unfortunately, there will be a lot of zeros that will accompany those proposals, but I think there are a number of ways you can approach it.”

Howard said sidewalk construction, as well as new on-street parking, is part of a plan to overhaul Westbrook Street, leading into the Redbank neighborhood. That work was originally scheduled for two years ago, but got twice delayed, first by notice that new water mains were needed in the area, then by efforts by the planning department to first finish the West End Master Plan.

Howard said that project will go out to bid over the winter, with work finally set to kick off next spring.

FLOOD MAPS — At its Sept. 6 meeting the South Portland City Council voted to join with other area municipalities in protesting new flood maps drawn up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). For a cost o $35,000 – and perhaps as low as $23,300 if more towns join – South Portland will get an assessment of the modeling used to create those maps, prepared by Ransom Consulting Engineers of Portland. If after reviewing that report the council should decide to proceed, it would cost between $20,000 and $48,000 to have Ransom drill down to how the flood model predictions will impact specific properties in South Portland, and to file the actual appeal with FEMA, once a 90-day comment period opens later this year.

The number of homes impacted by changes in FEMA’s prediction of flood risks in the case of a catastrophic storm has been cited variously as “200 families” by Councilor Claude Morgan, and “24 properties,” by Councilor Eben Rose.

Rose was the man outside of the 5-1 Sept. 6 vote, losing by a similar margin on his call to delay a decision until more research can be done into what exactly Ransom proposes to do, how that might alter FEMA’s flood zone lines, and what impact, if any, that would have on insurance rates and property values across the city.

“In this huge, ponderous package we received on this, I think I’m the only one who actually read it. The only one. And I would include staff in that,” Rose said. “Where was the due diligence on this? It’s very frustrating to be the only one doing the heavy lifting on this.”

Calling Ransom’s solicitation of municipal pushback on the maps a “mercenary tactic,” Rose said South Portland would do better to concentrate instead on measures that would prevent extreme flood damage, rather than try to save some residents on their insurance costs – a tactic that could come back to haunt those homeowners if there ever is a major storm that causes significant flooding.

“This is a matter of placating the public into thinking the city is doing something to help you when in fact it is doing the opposite,” he said.

“We’re not doing this instead of mitigation measures,” said Councilor Linda Cohen. “We’re all in the community together. It’s not an us-and-them thing.”

“It’s not like we are making this up out of whole cloth. There are a lot of folks who are concerned about this,” Morgan said. “We have enough information to move forward on (ordering the Ransom review). The longer we delay, the more likely that other communities that are sitting on the fence looking for leadership and guidance will elect not to get in. And the more communities that get in, the smaller our costs and the better our case.”

Others on the council noted that the city can pull out of the appeal at any time. And while Rose noted that South Portland can’t make any actual use of the Ransom report because all city ordinances compel use of FEMA maps for various initiatives, others said no amount of extra review is bad.

“We’ll get information that will allow us to make the best decision possible for our citizens,” said Mayor Patti Smith.

“In order for people to get on board with mitigation issues, there is going to have to be confident that we have left no stone unturned as far as determining what the risk really is,” said Councilor Susan Henderson.

BUS BUY — South Portland has agreed to buy two new Blue Bird school buses from O’Connor GMC of Augusta. An 84-passenger Type D bus will cost $110,924, while a 66-passenger Type C bus with a wheelchair lift and space to secure up to three wheelchairs, will cost $95,362. W. C. Cressey & Son of Kennebunk offered a lower price on a pair of Thomas Built buses – at $108,604 for the larger Type D, and $94,582 or the wheelchair bus – but it’s bid for the wheelchair bus did not meet all requested specifications, School Transportation Director Lisa Gadway said. Meanwhile, even at a larger price tag, O’Connor’s offer on the larger Type D bus was preferable, Gadway said, because a Blue Bird bus has a “better life expectancy” than the Thomas Built version. The city council voted unanimously at its Sept. 6 meeting to endorse Gadway’s selection. The school board had budgeted $200,000 for the purchase.

BUS BILL — A change in state billing practices has put South Portland’s transportation budget into the red, causing the city council to plug new numbers into the annual books at its Sept. 6 meeting.

The city receives financial assistance to run its bus line from the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Transit Administration, but as a condition of that funding is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide free “paratransit” service for the handicapped. In return, South Portland gets an 80 percent reimbursement from the Federal Transit Administration for the costs of those free rides, which are provided by the Regional Transportation Program in Portland.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, subsidizes transportation for the disabilities through its transportation broker, Logisticare. According to City Manager Scott Morelli, until July 2016, Logisticare purchased monthly passes for its clients. But for the fiscal year that ended this past June, Logisticare changed its policy and re-categorized all of its disabled clients as Americans with Disabilities Act riders and billed Regional Transportation Program accordingly.

“That action resulted in a dramatic increase in billing from (Regional Transportation Program) to the city – from the previous monthly billing of $5,944 to an average of $12,000 per month,” Morelli wrote in a memo to the city council. “This change was implemented after the budget estimated for this account was submitted and for which $81,364 was budgeted.

“It was a double hit, because they weren’t buying the passes anymore, and we had provide the service for free,” the city’s contracted transportation director, Art Handman, said.

Handman alerted Finance Director Greg L’Heureux of the change in August 2016 and it was agreed to let the year play out and a budget adjustment would be made after all fiscal year 2017 costs were received so an exact budget revision could be calculated.

As it turned out, South Portland ended up having to pay Logisticare $150,322 – or $68,958 more than it had expected. Luckily, the 80 percent Federal Transit Administration reimbursement on the full cost of the service will net the city $119,957 in extra revenue on a $15,724 local match. Of that, $57,060 has already been paid by the feds, leaving $62,897 outstanding.

The net result was that the city is not actually paying any extra out of pocket following the change in Logisticare’s billing practices. It just needs to reassign which pocket the money is coming from. To that end, the council agreed to edit the current budget to increases the approved line item for contracted bus services to match the $62,897 in additional Federal Transit Administration revenue.

APPOINTMENTS — At its Sept. 6 meeting, South Portland City Councilors named Jessica Kessler to a seat on the arts and historic preservation district, up for reappointment Oct. 20, while at its Sept. 18 session the council tapped Michael Taylor for a spot on the community development advisory committee through Jan. 15, 2020. Both appointments fill unexpired terms left open by Don Legere, who resigned his posts.

– Compiled by Staff Writer Wm. Duke Harrington.

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