With the 2007 drubbing in mind, ?South Portland seeks assurances before the $47.3M high school project goes to fall vote.

SOUTH PORTLAND – The South Portland City Council will commission an independent review of a $47.3 million high school renovation proposal before deciding whether to place that plan on the November ballot.

“We are just going to take a look at this and see if this makes sense,” Mayor Tom Coward said of the proposal, which calls for the city to borrow $44.2 million, while using energy credits and reserve funds to offset the remainder of the project cost.

Following a presentation Monday by the Secondary Schools Facilities Committee outlining the proposal, councilors, school board, committee members and residents alike agreed that the high school, which faces health, safety and spacing issues, needs to be renovated.

In question was whether a project of the magnitude proposed is necessary, and whether a proposal with that high a price tag can pass the muster of voters who turned down, by a 3-to-1 margin, a $56 million renovation plan in 2007.

The specter of that defeat at the polls three years ago hung over Monday’s meeting, and framed much of the debate over the new proposal, which the committee finalized in May after finding an additional $1.4 million in savings, mostly through the use of reserve funds and energy efficiency credits.

At Monday’s meeting, city Finance Director Greg L’Heureux presented the council with two options for financing the high school project. He said the city is in a good position to borrow, managing about a third of the debt per capita of neighboring Scarborough.

The first financing option calls for the city to borrow $44.2 million in two installments – $27 million in 2012 and $17.2 million in 2014. The impact on the tax rate would peak in 2015, when the debt payments would add $1.17 per $1,000 of property valuation, though some of that impact would be softened as older debt is retired.

Under the second option, the first bond would drop to $24 million due to the use of $3 million in reserve funds. The impact on the tax rate in the earlier years of the bond would be more dramatic, L’Heureux said, but the impact in later years would be lower, as would the overall cost of the project.

“We uncovered every rock to see how we could lower the cost of the project,” said Superintendent Suzanne Godin, a member of the committee.

After years of fine-tuning, the time has come to move forward with the proposal, for the sake of the school system and the community as a whole, said Ralph Baxter Jr., a school board and committee member.

The 2007 proposal failed in part, Baxter said, because the school board and the City Council were not united in their support of the project. The councilors should not place the proposal on the ballot just to pass it along to voters, but because they believe the project is the right thing to do, he said.

“Don’t support something just for the sake of sending it out to the voters,” said Baxter, who urged the council to “mean what they say and say what they mean” so that the proposal can be shaped to gain support across the board and council.

Councilor Tom Blake, also a member of the committee, said he argued at the committee meetings for a project made up of several, less expensive parts phased in over time, as a way of making the proposal more palatable to voters. He was unsuccessful in swaying other members of the committee, who all voted in favor of the current proposal, which is backed by the school board, as well.

Blake said he is now in support of the proposal because it is the result of a long and scrupulous process held under the oversight of the people elected to represent the community.

“Let’s move ASAP, and let’s also move toward November,” he said.

While all the councilors agreed on the need for an independent review, others were not as eager as Blake to see the project on the November ballot.

Councilor Rosemarie DeAngelis said it was clear the high school needed work. However, she said, it is unlikely that voters would support a project with a cost approaching $50 million. A second loss at the polls for the high school project would be “devastating,” she said.

“We have to think about this in a way that’s going to win,” said DeAngelis, suggesting a phased-in project or perhaps a middle- and high-school complex.

The figures provided regarding the proposal’s projected tax impact looked feasible at first glance, said DeAngelis and fellow Councilor Patti Smith.

But, the figures did not take into account any future borrowing, they said. The city is now investigating the possibility of building a new public works garage and either renovating or purchasing a new city hall. Renovations to the city’s middle schools also lie in the near future, though it is hoped that state funding will be received for that project.

All those items, said DeAngelis and Smith, could potentially ratchet up the tax rate.

“This is the bare minimum snapshot,” Smith said the high school project’s tax impact figures.

A similar debate played out in the audience, with many residents standing in support of the high school, arguing that it is the centerpiece of the community.

“Step forward. Do something,” said Elizabeth Flaherty. “It needs to be done.”

But others said the high-cost proposal would not win support from voters. One resident, Peter Stocks, said he has children in the school system and wants a new high school. But, he said, he needs to know that the city is getting the right price on the project.

“I would rather put money into curriculum than bricks,” he said.

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