Price tag for Portland ballot questions estimated at $6.5M

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Portland residents can expect more than a $6.5 million increase in the city budget if all the referendum questions on the Nov. 8 municipal ballot are approved.

That’s according to a communication from interim City Manager Danielle West to Mayor Kate Snyder and the City Council on Monday, in response to a request from Snyder. 

West said City Hall staff estimated an increase of just over $1 million annually if all eight of the Charter Commission proposals are passed, while the five citizen initiative questions would require a more than a $5.5 million annual increase.

Election 2022 logoThe estimated costs are based on current staffing levels, pay grades, construction and material costs, and loss of revenue. About $250,000 represents capital expenditures for renovations required for new employees and is not considered a recurring expense.

West said if the estimated costs and revenue losses are added to the total city budget, there would be an increase of 3.4 percent in the property tax rate, or 44 cents per $1,000 of valuation. For a Portland homeowner with a home valued at $365,000, this would add $161 in annual property taxes.

Question A, a proposal that would further restrict short-term rentals, would have a financial impact of $175,000 for two new staff positions. It is the only citizen initiative that did originate with the Maine Democratic Socialists of America.

Question B, the DSA’s competing proposal for tightening restrictions on short-term rentals, would have a financial cost of $127,500 that West attributed to loss of revenue.

Question C, an attempt at rent control, would have an impact of $175,000 for new staff and administration requirements. 

Question D, which would increase the minimum wage to $18 per hour, would have an impact of more than $2.1 million. It would require creation of a Department of Fair Labor Practices, additional office space in City Hall, and higher wages for various city employees.

And Question E, which would limit the number of cruise ship passengers who can disembark to 1,000 per day, would have a $3 million impact due to lost revenue.

Of the eight Charter Commission questions, only Questions 2, 3, 5, 7, and 8 would have financial impacts, according to the city.

Question 2, the governance proposal that would shift more authority to an executive mayor, would have an impact of just under $400,000. Components of the increase include raising the wages of city councilors, School Board members, and the mayor. There would also be construction costs for revamping Council Chambers to accommodate a 12-person council instead of the current nine councilors; costs to hold special elections to fill vacant seats, and administrative costs depending on the priorities of the executive mayor. 

Question 3, a clean elections program recommendation, would add $290,000 for staffing and the funds available to candidates. 

The financial impact of Question 5 remains unknown. West said this question, which removes the requirement for the School Board to submit the School Department budget to the City Council for approval before sending it to voters, may limit overall savings the city has previously seen because of the council’s budgetary review authority. In the past 20 years, the council’s oversight resulted in $4.5 million in reductions to school budgets; without that, she said, the school tax rate would be 4.4 percent higher than it is now.

The question may also have additional costs that are not clear because of a lack of clarity in the proposal, West said, as well as a question of legality and the potential that the city may face a legal challenge if it is approved.

Question 7, to create a Civilian Police Review Board to replace the existing Police Citizen Review Subcommittee, would have a cost of $180,000.

And Question 8, which codifies a code of ethics for elected and appointed officials and calls for an Ethics Commission, would have an impact of $137,500. Most of that – an estimated $125,000 – represents the salary and benefits for an accountability officer to be hired by the city.

A group called Yes for Democracy, headed by two members of the recent Charter Commission, said such line item fiscal notes can be deceiving and can be used as “a political tool” to stop legislation.

While they said they hope this is not Snyder’s intention, they fear the staff communication is “painting the Charter Commission as fiscally irresponsible.”

“Although the estimates are itemized, they are not tabulated, so it is difficult to parse out how the final number for the eight charter amendment questions was arrived at in terms of one-time costs vs. ongoing costs,” the group said in a statement. “That, as you know, is comparing apples to oranges.”

Cutter Street food trucks
June 15 was the first day for Portland food trucks in a parking lot on Cutter Street. Truck owners had mixed feelings about the arrangement, and now the public is being asked for its opinion. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

City seeks feedback on food truck setup

Following mixed responses from operators, the city wants public feedback on the pilot program that moved Eastern Promenade food trucks to a Cutter Street parking lot this spring.

Interim City Manager Danielle West told the City Council on Sept. 19 that a survey will be available Oct. 3.

Fourteen trucks were allowed to operate for free on Cutter Street, down the hill from where they had been parking for several years, although they didn’t go without objecting to the move. After a few weeks, several gave up on the location, which they said proved to be too much of an obstacle for customers. 

The Cutter Street experiment was launched after some Munjoy Hill property owners complained about noise, odor, parking, and traffic problems they attributed to the food trucks parked along the Eastern Promenade.

— Colin Ellis