March 29, 2013

Portland residents face tax hike

The city manager's proposed budget seeks $3.9 million more from property owners.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – City Manager Mark Rees will present a $216 million budget proposal Monday that would increase property taxes for municipal services by 2.9 percent.

The budget for the year starting July 1, a summary of which Rees provided Friday, would increase overall spending by $10 million, 5.8 percent, over this fiscal year. While it would rely on other sources of revenue for some of that increase, an additional $3.9 million would come from property taxpayers.

"Our effort was to maintain existing services to the extent possible," Rees said. "I think we've been pretty creative in being able to do that."

The budget would cover rising personnel costs and new positions that include a waterfront director and two more part-timers to support the restaurant inspection program.

It does not include any new spending to absorb sweeping cuts in state aid proposed by Gov. Paul LePage.

LePage's budget would suspend revenue-sharing with municipalities and reduce General Assistance reimbursements for cities such as Portland, where demand for services is high. All told, the proposals would lead to a $9 million loss of state revenue and a potential cost shift to Portland taxpayers.

While municipalities have voiced strong opposition to LePage's proposal to suspend revenue-sharing for two years, it remains in the state budget that legislators are reviewing.

"That's a huge hole to fill," said City Councilor John Anton, who leads the council's Finance Committee and was first elected in 2007. "If (the state budget) goes through at the level proposed, it would be the worst budget year I have ever experienced. ... And none of the ones I've done have been good."

Rees said Friday afternoon that he doesn't expect the Legislature to pass a budget with LePage's funding cuts intact.

"It's draconian," Rees said of LePage's budget. "It's purely a tax shift from the state to local government. I don't see the Legislature allowing that type of transfer of the tax burden."

Rees said his spending plan reflects increases in pension, health and social service costs. No layoffs or position reductions are proposed.

In fact, Rees recommends hiring a waterfront coordinator who could help market the Ocean Gateway facility and handle other waterfront issues. That position would be paid for by the existing Waterfront Tax Increment Financing program.

"We have so many varied interests on the waterfront," Rees said. "I think it would be very helpful to have one person people can go to."

The budget also includes two new part-time positions to bolster the city's restaurant inspection program. One would be a part-time health inspector to assist the full-time inspector already on staff, while the other would provide administrative support.

Rees said 12 firefighters who have been funded through a $600,000 federal grant that expires June 30 would be absorbed into the 2013-14 budget. Those positions would be used for the city's confined-space rescues and paid for through private contracts for the coverage.

In a budget message to the council, Rees said it would be premature to identify budget implications from a new study of the fire department relating to scheduling, staffing, overtime costs and deployment of manpower.

The budget would bolster services for the homeless, mostly through state and federal grants, Rees said in an interview. Those initiatives include a rapid rehousing program that provides security deposits and short-term housing subsidies, 40 housing vouchers through the Preble Street Resource Center and Portland Housing Authority for the chronically homeless, and improved intake procedures so homeless clients can get the help they need.

Mayor Michael Brennan, whose job includes helping to prepare the budget, said Friday that he was not available to discuss the proposal, but indicated he would speak about it on Monday night.

Anton said the council will likely refer the budget to the Finance Committee for further review.

"My sense is, the council is very reluctant to raise the tax rate much -- if at all," Anton said before receiving the manager's budget proposal.

The city's current property tax rate is $18.82 per $1,000 valuation, with $9.57 going to schools and $9.25 for city services.

Rees' budget does not include Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk's proposed a $98.9 million school budget for 2013-14. That budget, which would eliminate 41 full-time positions, is based on $8 million in cost increases, $1.5 million of them coming from a LePage proposal to shift teacher retirement costs to school districts. Another $1.7 million in costs comes from deferred raises to teachers.

Caulk's budget is a 5 percent increase over the current budget of $94 million, and would increase property taxes for education by 3.7 percent.

 

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

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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