Fire station closing under scrutiny, too

FALMOUTH — Superintendent of Schools George Entwistle III began a budget presentation Monday night by informing the Town Council that changes in state funding have resulted in a $1.1 million reduction in state contributions since he first presented the budget last month.

Falmouth got hit extra hard, Entwistle said, because its property valuation increased 11 percent, compared to the state average of 6 percent.

The stabilization fund of federal stimulus money provided $790,000 to offset the loss, which left a fiscal 2010 revenue gap of $290,000.

School administrators were able to adjust the budget to make up for the shortfall by eliminating all new funding requests, capturing savings on projected health cost increases and ultimately presenting a budget that is about $184,000 less than the fiscal 2009 budget. He said that holds the mil rate flat at $10.81.

In the past few years, the school budgets have shown a 3 percent to 3.5 percent increase each year.

“This is drastic action in response to some very significant downturn and economic conditions we’re responding to,” Entwistle said. “This is not sustainable.”

Town Manger Nathan Poore briefly presented the fiscal 2010 municipal budget, unchanged since its introduction to the council last month. A zero-increase budget maintains the 2.95 municipal tax rate.

Savings from closing the Pleasant Hill Fire Station are reflected in the budget. But two councilors, Joe Wrobleski and David Libby, said they intend to propose at the next council meeting to appropriate $10,000 to keep the station open for another year.

That would give the town more time to look at the options, while continuing to call in Portland when needed and to fully fund a new EMS-firefighter position, stationed at Engine 2 on Bucknam Road.

Many residents spoke against the controversial plan to close the station, which is already figured into the fiscal 2010 budget.

Longtime firefighter and Falmouth resident Freeman Cleaves said the station is “like a security blanket” for people in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood.

“Your fire chief has done a superb job … but I want to say that some of the things that we read, some of the numbers that have been brought out, may or may not be quite so accurate as we’d like to think they were,” Cleaves said. “Depending on a ladder or engine coming from Portland is not a very good security blanket for me; sometimes numbers don’t answer all the questions.”

Nearly a dozen Pleasant Hill area residents spoke against closing the station, asking councilors to extend its life by a year.

In other business, the council heard an update on the workforce housing project, including more design specifics. The buildings would be constructed to platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, with thick walls and triple-glazed windows. Board and batten and clapboard siding would be used, with metal roofing.

“The units can be made affordable by starting with a box and adding only things related to green features,” architect Phil Kaplan said.

But to go forward, the developer and the architect said they must have a commitment from the town to continue their work.

After hearing the presentation, councilors asked Poore to have an order for them to vote on for either the April 27 meeting or for the first meeting in May, authorizing the money to proceed.

A separate order may also be crafted that would address the creation of an affordable housing tax increment financing district to make the project economically feasible, a requirement in the eyes of the developers. A TIF would give the project the $70,000 per unit additional subsidy it needs in order for the dwellings to be affordable while sheltering 100 percent of the new valuation from taxes.

Before construction could start, the project would require a referendum, Poore said.

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected].

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