In their first in-person meeting in more than two years, Portland city councilors unanimously approved nearly $31 million in capital improvement spending on March 21.
The 2023 Capital Improvement Plan, which had a unanimous recommendation from the Finance Committee, calls for more than $30.7 million in new projects, with a $12 million net impact on the city’s debt service in the general obligation fund.
The council had not met in person since March 2, 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic. While councilors had tried on separate occasions last summer and winter to return to in-person meetings, they were thwarted by surges from the delta and omicron variants of the virus.
The return to City Hall was finally made possible when the council ended the city’s state of emergency in January.
The approved CIP includes an amendment proposed by Mayor Kate Snyder to fund the first phase of work for a new park known as Portland Harbor Common along the eastern waterfront. It will be constructed in the area now used for parking and vehicle loading at Ocean Gateway.
The initial CIP called for funding just half of the first phase, which Snyder said involved study and design, for $75,000. Her amendment, approved unanimously, calls for full funding of $150,000, with the additional $75,000 coming from cuts in the remaining CIP.
Snyder said not fully funding this phase would delay the park.
Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said the amendment will have no financial impact in fiscal year 2023, but could result in the city losing just over $327,000 in fiscal years 2024 and 2025 due to lost parking revenue. He said the parking area now provides more than $600,000 in revenue from island residents who use the Ocean Gateway lot.
Snyder said she hopes the study and design phase help the city find “creative solutions” to offset the lost revenue.
Parks, Recreation, and Facilities Director Ethan Hipple said the first phase would also mean the city has “skin in the game” to help fund the design of the project. Much of the actual construction budget down the road would be raised through grants and donations, he said.
“We can’t move forward until we have the design,” Hipple said.
The remaining CIP includes dozens of projects, ranging from comparatively small figures like $40,000 for storm drain replacements on the Eastern Promenade to much larger expenditures like $2 million for a Fore Street sewer separation project, $1.3 million for a Sagamore Village Green infrastructure project, $1.6 million for a new ladder vehicle for the Fire Department, and $1.8 million to partially fund the first phase of repairs to the Portland High School roof.
The council also approved $155,000 for the Stroudwater Dam. Interim Corporation Counsel Jen Thompson said the city was given the more-than-a-century-old stone dam in 1944 and is obligated by deed to maintain it. Councilors suggested they want their Sustainability and Transportation Committee to examine the dam’s long-term environmental impact.
There was also discussion about trying to fund an additional sidewalk snowplow after some members of the public said it often takes several days to clear all the sidewalks that are the city’s responsibility. The CIP already calls for adding one such plow, which will replace an aging piece of equipment.
Councilors briefly discussed what adding a second new vehicle would require, though staff said adding a vehicle is only one cost to the city; it would also have to factor in staffing, since filling late-night after-storm jobs to clear streets and sidewalks has become a challenge.
Councilors on Monday were not masked, but they were separated from each other by plastic dividers. Some members of the public who attended did wear masks.
Despite the return to City Hall Monday night, Mayor Kate Snyder had asked members of the public to continue to participate remotely while the city troubleshoots a hybrid model that combines an in-person meeting with live remote access.
About 15 people attended in person Monday night, and up to 50 participated remotely via Zoom.
There were a few hiccups along the way, mostly early during public comment as the council toggled back and forth between speakers who were in Council Chambers and those who were remote.
Mostly, however, Monday’s meeting went smoothly, without technical difficulties or interrupted audio. Some members of the public viewing remotely mentioned a less-than-ideal camera angle, and Snyder said the city is still waiting for equipment needed to best conduct hybrid meetings.