Portland council sends $133.1M school budget to voters

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After several hours of debate including dueling proposed amendments, the City Council on Monday approved without changes the $133.1 million school budget sought for the 2023 fiscal year by the School Board.

The council Finance Committee had called for reducing the proposed school budget by $1 million, urging the School Board to use remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds to offset the cuts. But a successful amendment on Monday night from Councilor Roberto Rodriguez restored funding to the original level.

Seal of the city of portlandTwo other amendments were proposed Monday night: One from Mayor Kate Snyder that would have initially restored $250,000 to the School Board’s budget, and one from Councilor Tae Chong that called for the School Department’s budget to require no property tax increase.

Snyder’s amendment was initially successful, but the amended order did not get the six votes necessary to alter the school budget. Chong’s amendment was defeated 7-1, with Chong the only councilor in favor. Councilor April Fournier was absent from the meeting.

Chong said he wanted the School Board to propose a budget with a zero percent tax increase because while the School Department received $45 million in unexpected state and federal funding that the city did not receive, test scores for students of color were continuing to decline. He said the city and schools need to make good investments and Portland Public Schools is not doing its part.

“We can’t continue spending on programs that aren’t working,” Chong said.

Rodriguez called Chong’s argument “misleading and lazy.”

Councilor Andrew Zarro, who supported Rodriguez’s amendment, said he would be more comfortable if the School Board had decided to use available ARPA funding, but “supporting public schools is paramount.”

Councilor Victoria Pelletier said it was important for the council to “prioritize equity like we say we do. … I hope people understand if we’re waiting on a perfect or more affordable time to focus on equity, there won’t be one.”

Pelletier said she did not support requiring a $1 million school budget cut if the council wasn’t going to propose line items in the budget to slash.

Brendan O’Connell, the city’s finance director, said the school budget will require a 4.8 percent tax increase for property owners, compared to the zero percent tax impact school funding had in the current budget.

Municipal budget

In addition to voting on the School Department budget, the council also held the first of two public hearings on the proposed $269 million municipal budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Snyder said there is still the complicating factor of a $2 million shortfall in the budget, and interim City Manager Danielle West said the Finance Committee will continue trying to address that shortfall as it conducts department-by-department summaries.

The city’s portion of the budget represents a 5.5 percent increase over the current operating budget. If approved as is, it would require an additional tax bite of $6.56 per $1,000 of assessed value. The school portion of the tax rate would increase by $7.05 per $1,000 of assessed value, increasing the mil rate to $13.61.

The city’s portion of the budget would mean a tax increase of $119 annually for the owner of a home valued at $350,000. Assuming both budgets are approved without any changes, the owner of a property valued at $350,000 would have to pay an additional $217 in annual taxes.

The council will have a second public hearing and vote on the municipal budget at its June 6 meeting. The school budget validation referendum takes place June 14.

Riverton Park
The Portland Housing Authority describes Riverton Park as a “low-rent public housing family community in the Riverton neighborhood.” (Courtesy PHA)

Portland Housing Authority eyes Riverton Park redevelopment 

The City Council is being asked to rezone part of the Riverton Park campus off Forest Avenue to promote redevelopment that could include affordable housing, commercial and transit use, along with increased density in the neighborhood.

Part of the proposal also calls for a community center proposed by the Portland Housing Authority as part of its plans for 2 Riverton Drive, which is now low-income housing operated by the authority. 

While the council only had first readings on Monday, meaning the proposals were read into the record but not discussed, it received two recommendations from the Planning Board that would amend the zoning map for the neighborhood from the existing R-5 residential zone to R-5a residential and B-2 business community zone.

The intent of these changes is to allow development of the existing Riverton Park campus and the future community center by increasing density and adding “places of assembly” as a conditional use in R-5a zones if they are less than 10,000 square feet.

According to a memo from Kevin Kraft, the city’s deputy director of planning and urban development, the Riverton Park campus is a 141-unit townhouse apartment community. It was built more than 50 years ago to provide low-income housing and is in need of rehabilitation.

Additional parcels along Forest Avenue are included in the proposed zone changes to create a contiguous R-5a zone and B-2 zone.

Kraft told councilors the city’s goals include “fostering sustainable growth by providing the opportunity for a complete neighborhood by allowing a mixture of uses within a residential neighborhood, and increasing services provided within a walking and transit radius. The zoning change would increase density allowing for additional residential and commercial development, including affordable housing development in a transit-accessible location.”

The Planning Board unanimously approved the recommendations at its April 12 meeting, with two members recused. According to the board’s materials, the zoning changes would allow PHA to demolish four buildings closest to Forest Avenue and replace them with a four-story multifamily building with potential for ground-floor retail; rehabilitate 21 residential buildings; demolish an administrative building and replace it with the community center for residential services that could include a soup kitchen, community policing, and Boys and Girls Club, and construct a new maintenance building. 

The only written public comment provided to the council was from George Rheault, who listed nine questions, including whether the Portland Housing Authority advertised initial meetings to discuss the changes to residents of nearby properties, including Terrace Pond Apartments and Wellesley Estates.

Final action by the council is expected at its June 6 meeting.

— Colin Ellis