With the passage of its budget, Portland has made it through another tough year. Now is the time to ask what’s next.

The $196 million budget, which calls for a 1 percent tax increase — even though there were layoffs in nearly every department, and cutbacks to and elimination of popular services — buys city officials time. But it doesn’t address the structural problems that come from having a city government that costs more to run than what it receives in revenues.

The city has balanced its books this year with the help of one-time events such as land sales and by deferring capital improvements, which could create long-term liabilities in exchange for short-term savings.

Those pots of money, along with the fireworks show, seasonal park maintenance and the parking ticket forgiveness program, won’t be available to cut next year if revenues stay flat while costs continue to rise.

The city should start now to engage the public with some of the choices that are available, and use that input to change the way Portland does business so that this annual exercise of across-the-board cuts can be replaced with something more strategic.

There should be enough time before the next budget is drafted to conduct a thorough study on the costs and benefits of consolidating fire and/or ambulance services from neighboring cities into a regional department. Regionalization would be a big project that couldn’t be accomplished in a single budget cycle, but it’s something that could get started.

More should be done to consolidate duplicate city and school functions, such as the human resources and finance departments. There has been resistance to this idea in Portland from officials who say the two departments need their independence and that the savings would be minimal.

Well, Westbrook is doing it and saving money. Before there is another round of layoffs and a tax increase, Portland residents deserve to know why it can work in one city, but won’t work here.

The city reached a truce with the library by paying to keep the Riverton branch open for a year. But there could be more friction between the city and the independent, but mostly taxpayer-supported, library next year over what services it will provide. The next few months offer an opportunity to redefine this partnership outside the heat of a budget battle.

There are other areas in which the city could change the way it does business, save some money and maybe even deliver services more effectively.

This budget buys Portland officials some time. They should use it.


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