After hearing testimony from nearly 50 people over the course of two meetings, the City Council Monday night sent voters the full $125.2 million budget sought by the Portland Public Schools.
The spending increase of $6.24 million for fiscal year 2022 would raise property taxes by 5.5 percent, or 64 cents per $1,000 of valuation, on the school side of the city budget.
Because City Manager Jon Jennings’ municipal budget proposal would reduce residential property taxes by 4 percent, the impact on the combined city tax rate would be an increase of about 1 percent, or $54 a year for the owners of a home valued at $300,000.
Councilors narrowly rejected an amendment from their Finance Committee that sought to require the School Board to shave roughly $1.5 million from the budget, which would have resulted in no increase in the total city budget.
The amendment, which had unanimous support from the Finance Committee, failed 5-4 at the council level. Councilors April Fournier, Mark Dion, Andrew Zarro, Pious Ali, and Tae Chong voted against it.
The council also voted on several items related to the school budget, most of which passed unanimously. The only non-unanimous item was the final vote on the entire School Department operating budget, which passed 7-2 with Councilors Nick Mavodones and Belinda Ray opposed.
Dion, who is on the Finance Committee and proposed the amendment to trim the budget, said he was swayed after listening to public testimony and having additional time to think things over.
“I’ve spent time since then asking myself ‘what if I’m wrong?’” Dion said.
The councilors who supported the amendment said they hoped the School Department would try to make up the lost funding with money from the federal American Rescue Plan. Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana had previously said he was reluctant to use more of that funding than he already had in this budget, because many of the items are recurring requests. ARP funds will be gone after two years, he said, leaving taxpayers responsible for those additional costs.
Mavodones said the intent of the amendment was to reduce the burden on taxpayers. He said many people are still struggling from the coronavirus pandemic, so this is not the right time for an increase in property taxes. He said even with Portland’s increased housing market, many residents might be “property rich” but would still struggle to pay those property taxes.
“I think all the programs proposed can be funded with federal dollars,” he said.
Ray said the added burden on property owners is a significant request, especially for residents on fixed incomes.
“We aren’t asking the schools not to put forward these programs,” she said. “We’re asking them to use other funding.”
Councilor Tae Chong shared the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of members of the public who spoke during the council’s two public hearings: that the additional spending, specifically aimed at equity and closing the achievement gap for students of color, is worth the additional tax burden.
Chong also referred to statements he made earlier this year, accusing local progressive groups of racial insensitivity. He said the city, and these groups, have not done enough to put the focus on students of color and the disadvantages they face.
“This is not how you build equity in Portland Public Schools,” he said.
Christine Wirth, a parent and teacher at the Gerald E. Talbot Community School, told the council this budget proposal has many important things for families, including English language learner support and expanding the district’s pre-kindergarten programs.
“This kind of equity doesn’t happen in a bubble, it happens at a systemic level,” Wirth said.
She added this is an opportunity for Portland to become a model for other municipalities in Maine with its commitment to equity spending.
“I don’t mind paying for it,” Wirth said.
The approved school budget now goes to voters in a validation referendum on June 8, the same day as the city’s Charter Commission election.
Plan advances for consolidation of social services
Portland city councilors took the first step Monday toward approving a plan to consolidate and move most of the city’s Health and Human Services Department to a new downtown location.
The council held the first reading of a lease agreement for 39 Forest Ave., a former MaineHealth building where the city intends to place several services, including the Needle Exchange Program now on India Street and General Assistance, which is on Lancaster Street. Some administrative positions now at City Hall will also be moved to the building in the Arts District.
City staff has said they have run out of space for growth at all three locations.
There was no council discussion or public comment during the first reading, which is standard. A second reading and vote by the council are expected May 17.
The plan to lease the 37,000-square-foot, two-story building was only introduced to the council about a month ago, on April 9. It was criticized by some neighbors, including Portland Stage Company and the Maine College of Art, for the lack of outreach by the city before its intention was made public. MECA, for example, plans to redevelop a vacant building next door as a residence hall.
The city since then has taken steps to engage concerned members of the public about the project. In addition to an announcement at an April 13 HHS Committee meeting, the city on April 16 released a survey for Needle Exchange clients; Portland Downtown hosted a virtual forum on April 23; mailers were sent to abutters during the week of April 26; staff met with the Bayside Neighborhood Association on May 4; the city held a virtual community forum on May 5, and on May 26 staff plan to meet with the Parkside Neighborhood Association. There have also been meetings with MECA and its development partner, Redfern Properties.
The accelerated rollout of the plan is driven by the expiration July 1 of the city’s Lancaster Street lease. If the council approves a lease agreement for 39 Forest Ave., renovations on the building could begin June 1, in time for some services to move in from Lancaster.
— Colin Ellis
Proposed municipal budget heads to council vote
Following several hours of discussion about the proposed school budget, Portland city councilors had little to say about their own spending plan in a Monday night workshop.
The City Council is slated to have a first reading of the municipal budget on May 17, with a second reading and vote scheduled for June 7.
City Manager Jon Jennings proposed a $212 million budget on April 26. It represents a spending increase of $9.4 million, but a 4 percent reduction in property taxes thanks to the American Rescue Plan.
City Finance Director Brendan O’Connell on Monday said the city will receive a total of $46.2 million in federal funding. He said the city is putting together a three-year plan to “slowly reduce” its reliance on ARP funds because the money only lasts for a two-year budget cycle.
O’Connell said the ARP funds will be delivered to Portland in two halves: one in the next 30 days, and the second a year later. He said there will be a workshop in June specifically about how the city will use its ARP funds.
The fiscal year 2022 budget proposal uses $8.75 million in ARP funds to offset revenue losses related to the coronavirus pandemic. Without these funds, Jennings’ budget would have called for a 4 percent increase in property taxes.
The largest departmental increase in the budget is for Health and Human Services, which O’Connell said calls for a $2.7 million increase – three times larger than the next largest departmental increase. He said the major driver in this increase is “the way we take care of people in a pandemic has changed.”
He said emergency shelters have had to alter how many clients they can serve while maintaining social distance, which has also forced the city to find additional places, often hotels and motels, to shelter those in need. While the city will be reimbursed by the state for these costs, O’Connell said, the money must still be spent.
Information technology spending is proposed to increase by about $270,000, which O’Connell said will help bring that department back to where it was before the pandemic. He said this department was hit the hardest, with a department-wide furlough.
Debt service has an increase of $2.7 million, which O’Connell said is largely the result of the first principal payment for the Lyseth Elementary School construction project.
The Facilities and Waterfront Department would see an increase of around $439,000. O’Connell said a big factor in this is an emergency roof replacement for Merrill Auditorium.
The Permitting and Inspections Department is up around $246,000 due in large part to expanded duties required by a slate of voter referendums approved last November, he said, and other departments have increases mostly related to staffing as they try to get back to where they were before the pandemic.
— Colin Ellis