April 3, 2013

Portland manager's budget challenged by councilor

Mark Rees' proposal is $10 million more than the current budget and would increase property taxes 3.3 percent.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – The head of the City Council's Finance Committee is criticizing the city manager's budget proposal, which would increase property taxes even though it ignores $10 million in possible reductions in state revenue.

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City Councilor John Anton

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

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City Manager Mark Rees

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

Related Documents

PDF: City Manager's Proposed Budget

"I do not see this budget as either strategic or informed by priority setting. It strikes me as a 'status quo plus additions' budget. I don't feel this kind of budget is viable over time (or even this year)," John Anton wrote in a sharply worded memo, dated Tuesday, to fellow councilors and City Manager Mark Rees.

Anton's unusual rebuke comes as Finance Committee members wade into the details of the $216 million municipal budget plan for the year that starts July 1.

The committee's vice chair, Jill Duson, said she and other councilors have already directed Rees to draft alternatives.

"We put the manager on notice," Duson said. "We want to see some contingency budgets. We have to prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best."

If Gov. Paul LePage's state budget is enacted by the Legislature as proposed, Portland will lose millions of dollars in state revenue and be forced to accept deep cuts or further tax increases late in the municipal budget process.

Portland has joined communities such as South Portland and Scarborough and passed a resolution opposing LePage's budget. And many town and city officials, including Rees, are hopeful that the Legislature will reject the cuts to municipal revenue.

However, Portland councilors said they want the city manager to draft alternative budget plans in case LePage's budget passes.

Anton has said that councilors in Portland don't want to raise taxes much, if at all. He will be out of the country for the next few weeks, so he sent his initial budget comments in writing late Tuesday.

Rees said Wednesday in an email that he is working to address the issues outlined in Anton's memo.

Mayor Michael Brennan could not be reached by phone or email Wednesday.

Rees' proposed municipal spending plan for 2013-14 is another $10 million or 5.8 percent more than the current municipal budget. It would lead to a 3.3 percent increase in the amount of property taxes needed to pay for municipal and county services.

Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk, meanwhile, has proposed a school budget that would require 5.7 percent more in property taxes for education. He has said his goal is to reduce the tax revenue increase to 3.7 percent.

Both budgets, as proposed, would produce a 4.5 percent property tax rate increase. The tax bill for a typical single-family home in Portland, valued at $227,500, would increase by $191, to $4,472.

Rees' municipal budget assumes that the Legislature will reject LePage's proposals to eliminate $6.1 million in revenue sharing, $2.8 million in General Assistance reimbursements and $1 million in business equipment taxes to Portland.

Anton said it's not wise to ignore the possible cuts.

"Management's response to these factors has been to advocate for the restoration and increase in state and federal assistance as well as project growth in property taxes," Anton wrote.

"While I hope for both, I do not think we can rely on these strategies alone in managing the property tax impact to our residents and commercial taxpayers."

The city councilor added, "I believe we also need to reduce operating spending by prioritizing our expenditures."

Anton questioned proposals that would increase staffing, including the equivalent of eight full-time positions at the city's homeless shelters, three therapeutic recreation positions and two new accountant positions.

He also questioned the proposal to effectively add 12 firefighters to the municipal budget. Those positions were eliminated in a previous budget but were reinstated with a grant that will expire June 30.

Rees has said that grant was roughly $600,000, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency's website shows Portland's 2010 grant as more than $1 million. The city was not granted an extension this year, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

Rees has proposed paying for the firefighters with additional revenue from contracts with companies that pay for confined-space rescues.

However, Anton said the council was clear in saying the firefighter positions would be eliminated if the grant was not renewed.

Duson also expressed concern about the city manager's proposal, saying she did not want the positions funded through taxes or by the dedicated revenue source proposed by Rees.

Anton said he supports some new initiatives in the budget, including the purchase of 22 so-called big-belly, solar-powered trash compactors and a request from the mayor to fully fund the HOME team, which does outreach to Portland's homeless.

Those initiatives align with previously stated goals of the council, Anton said, whereas increased staffing for permits and inspections may not.

On Thursday, the Finance Committee will review proposed budgets for health and human services, planning and urban development, fire and police.

The full City Council is scheduled to vote on the school budget on May 6 and vote on the combined city-school budget on May 20.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings 

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