SOUTH PORTLAND – The City Council will wait a year before it tries to “sell” voters on a proposal to build a new public works complex for as much as $17 million.

On Monday night, councilors backed a staff recommendation to wait until November 2013 to ask voters if they want to borrow money to build a combined public works, parks and transportation complex off Highland Avenue.

Replacing the public works facility that was built on O’Neil Street in the 1930s has been identified as a priority for the city, and has been discussed for close to 10 years.

Voters in 2005 narrowly rejected a $4.8 million plan to buy the former DuraStone building on Wallace Avenue for a new public works facility.

The current proposal would enable the city to consolidate public works, bus transportation and parks maintenance into one complex while replacing a facility that city officials say is antiquated and inefficient.

The proposal, which includes a 65,000-square-foot building, could cost as much as $17 million, said City Manager Jim Gailey.

There is no doubt that the new facility is needed, but it’s “prudent” to wait a year to ask residents to approve borrowing millions of dollars, he said.

Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said waiting to borrow money for the public works facility would reduce the burden on taxpayers, who are already taking on a “substantial burden” from a $30 million bond for renovations to South Portland High School.

While there is a risk that interest rates could be higher in a year, L’Heureux said the council could reduce the impact on taxpayers by starting a reserve account. He suggested that councilors allocate $500,000 from the fund balance this year, then start building $100,000 into the tax rate for 2013-14 and 2014-15.

Reserves could bring the amount the city would have to borrow down to $16 million and make the project more “palatable,” L’Heureux said.

Councilors voiced support for waiting a year to put the project before voters, saying it will give the city time to settle details and make the case to residents about the need for a new facility.

The delay also gives city officials time to develop a plan for the O’Neil Street facility, which is on 6 acres in the middle of a dense residential neighborhood. Gailey suggested involving neighborhood residents with plans for the future of the parcel.

Councilor Maxine Beecher said the city has been waiting years for a new public works facility, but financially it “makes sense” to wait until 2013 for a referendum.

Councilor Tom Blake said he was “elated” by the staff recommendation to wait, in part because it will give the city time to develop a marketing plan to help “sell” the community on the proposal.

“For months I’ve been thinking we’re not ready for this, we’re not ready for this,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough sell.”

Putting off the vote for a year also will allow more time to examine the proposal and determine whether all of its aspects are really needed, said Mayor Patti Smith.

She would like to see the total cost reduced to around $14 million, perhaps by removing elements such as radiant heat in the floors.

“I think it will be a tough sell. We may have to justify every little piece of that building,” she said.

 

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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