Public pushes back against school budget cuts sought by Portland City Councilors

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Most residents who addressed the Portland City Council Monday night urged councilors to rebuke the Finance Committee and approve the full budget requested by the School Department and School Board for fiscal year 2022.

All but one of the 30 people who spoke during a public hearing supported the full budget sought by the School Board. During a Finance Committee meeting last week, the committee attached an amendment asking the board to cut nearly $1.5 million from its proposal, with the hope the reduction would be made up by federal funding from the American Rescue Plan.

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, the council Finance Committee chair, had suggested the amendment as a way to avoid increasing the combined municipal and school budget.

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana had previously cautioned against that strategy. He said many of the costs in the school budget proposal will continue into the future, and ARP funding will cycle out after two years.

Emily Figdor, Portland School Board chair: “We cannot meet our students’ needs with a zero percent tax increase.” (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The School Board had requested a total budget increase of $6.24 million; the proposed reduction cuts that to $4.76 million, which would result in a 46-cent increase in the property tax rate. While City Manager Jon Jennings’s municipal budget proposal would ultimately reduce residential property taxes by 4 percent, the School Department’s proposed budget would have called for an increase of 5.5 percent.

Mavodones on Monday said the council has no control over the line items in the School Department budget or how the money is spent; the council only controls the recommended bottom line.

School Board Chair Emily Figdor told the council the proposed budget, which has nearly $3 million in new equity spending, focuses on students “who have been at the margins too long” and looks to repay the “long-standing education debt” for those students.

“We cannot meet our students’ needs with a zero percent tax increase,” Figdor said.

Marpheen Chann, a member of the Planning Board and current candidate for Charter Commission, said disparities and inequities have long been a problem in Portland Public Schools, and the pandemic only made those problems more pronounced. He said the $2.9 million equity investment “will not solve all these problems, but it gets the ball rolling.”

Elizabeth Capone-Newton also said she supported the full budget proposal by the School Board, saying the survival of the city requires the council to consider everyone’s needs.

“Every person in this city is valuable,” she said. “You have the chance to do right by us.”

The only public speaker to oppose the budget was Jim Hall, who said while the substantive work done on equity and inclusion is important, coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic is not the right time to add significant new spending.

“The School Board didn’t do any prioritization in this budget,” he said.

The proposed budget, if approved as presented, would require a municipal property tax rate of $11.16 per $1,000 of assessed value. The school side of that would be $12.33 per $1,000 of assessed value. The final tax rate for 2021, including the school budget, was $23.31 per $1,000 of assessed value.

In addition to a second reading of the budget and likely vote May 10, Mayor Kate Snyder said there will also be a second public hearing, so those who did not speak Monday will have another opportunity to do so.

The council’s final school budget recommendation will go to a voter referendum on June 8.

Douglass St., Randall St. land sales advance

The City Council Monday night took the first step toward finalizing the sale of city-owned land on Douglass Street to a private developer, paving the way for what one councilor said would be Maine’s largest cooperative housing project.

Councilors unanimously approved the agreement for the sale of land at 41 and 93 Douglass St. to The Szanton Co., which plans to build affordable housing.

Councilors on Monday also approved the sale of land at 21 Randall St. to Greater Portland Community Land Trust, which also plans an affordable project.

Mary Davis, director of the city’s Housing and Community Development Division, said the Szanton proposal combines rental and cooperative housing.

The rental aspect will include creation of 56 apartments, with a mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom units. There will be a minimum of 17 two-bedroom units and 10 three-bedroom units. At least 40 of all the units will be affordable to households earning at or below 60 percent of the area median income, or $60,540 for a family of four.

The project will be financed through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program, Maine State Housing Authority, and a credit enhancement agreement through an affordable housing tax increment financing district.

The cooperative aspect, meanwhile, calls for 52 units, also with a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units. There will be a minimum of 12 two-bedroom units and 22 three-bedroom units. The units will be leased to shareholders of the cooperative. All units will be available to those earning at or below 100 percent AMI, or $100,900 for a family of four.

This project will use U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds and a credit enhancement agreement through an affordable housing tax increment financing district.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, chair of the Housing and Economic Development Committee, said Szanton will still have to complete due diligence on the property to address any environmental concerns.

Councilor Tae Chong said he supports the project, specifically the cooperative aspect. He said it will be the largest cooperative housing project in the state, and praised the inclusion of units that will provide housing for larger families.

Councilors also liked the location of the project, near amenities like Dougherty Field and a skatepark, that could make it suitable for families with children.

The original recommendation of a council committee was to sell the land to developer Jack Soley and Avesta Housing, but the council instead selected Szanton.

Thibodeau said the Randall Street property is an “oddly shaped parcel” of land that came to the attention of the council during its search for a new location for an emergency shelter.

Davis said the Randall Street project will have 13 condominiums, including eight three-bedroom units and five one-bedroom units. The units will be affordable to families making at or below 120 percent AMI, which is just over $121,000 for a family of four. The project also is subject to inclusionary zoning, meaning 25 percent of the units will be affordable to families earning at or below 80 percent AMI.

Davis said this will be the first such housing project from a land trust in Portland. The land trust will own the land, while the residents will own the condos. She said the property will likely be sold to the Land Trust for $1, and construction must start within 20 months.

A few members of the public expressed concerns about the city selling off property for a token sum, but Mayor Kate Snyder said given the high cost of land, this kind of donation is one of the few ways new affordable housing projects can get built.

— Colin Ellis

Portland City Councilor Belinda Ray announced May 3 that she has accepted a position with the Greater Portland Council of Governments and will not seek reelection in November. (Courtesy Belinda Ray)

Ray will not seek reelection

Portland City Councilor Belinda Ray on Monday announced she has accepted a job with the Greater Portland Council of Governments and will not seek a third term on the council.

Ray, who represents District 1, said she will begin her new position as the director of strategic partnerships for GPCOG in January 2022, which will allow her to complete her current three-year term on the council.

GPCOG is a regional planning agency made up of 25 municipalities, which distributes federal planning and transportation funding in Cumberland and northern York counties.

Ray has served on GPCOG’s executive committee, and on the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System policy committee, from which she said she will also resign. While there is no actual conflict that would prevent her from continuing to serve on these committees, Ray said she is stepping down to avoid any appearance of a conflict.

Mayor Kate Snyder will appoint replacements at a future City Council meeting.

Ray noted she has served as president of GPCOG, which gave her a “window into our surrounding communities here in Cumberland County and beyond.”

In a press release, Ray listed several initiatives she worked on as a councilor, including updating the sound ordinance; preserving public open space; regulating pesticides; improving bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure; increasing public transit in the region, and creating a 24/7 service center for people experiencing homelessness.

Ray, who represents Bayside, is also a member of the committee that recently recommended a temporary ban on new shelters in that neighborhood, where residents say the city has concentrated its shelters and social service offices. 

— Colin Ellis