The Portland City Council voted 7-2 Monday night to reallocate $1.2 million in capital funding for a high school project that a few councilors feared could be torn down in the coming years.

Later, only one resident spoke at a public hearing on the proposed city and school budgets, which together total $345 million in spending for the year beginning July 1.

At the request of the School Board, councilors voted to expand the so-called “Great Space” at Casco Bay High School where schoolwide assemblies take place. The renovations would also include a new entryway.

Principal Derek Pierce said the project is needed, because the facility on Allen Avenue has not been expanded to accommodate the student body, which has grown from 280 students to 400.

“In the spring of 2012, Mayor (Michael) Brennan asked that we expand Casco Bay High School to better meet community demand, and we did so,” Pierce said “Part of the city’s pledge was to expand our facility commensurately. That pledge has been only partially fulfilled.”

However, Councilors David Brenerman and Nicholas Mavodones opposed the change to the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, which was approved on last month.

They noted that the School Department has applied for state funding to rebuild or renovate the building at 196 Allen Ave., which is home to CBHS and the Portland Area Technical High School. Some believe that application stands a good chance at state funding, since it involves two schools.

“I just have difficulty voting for this without knowing where we stand with the state,” Brenerman said. “It just seems to me to be a waste of money.”

Superintendent Xavier Botana said it is possible that Casco Bay High School could receive state funding for a project that would incorporate the addition.

But “it’s premature for anybody to say that this will be a million dollars we will tear down,” he said.

To free up additional funding, Botana said the School Board put off a $750,000 investment to begin replacing the windows at Deering High School. Other projects, such as fire alarms engineering, are being funded through the school’s operating budget.

The upcoming school bond was on the minds of councilors, even though Casco Bay High School is not included in that project.

Voters will be given two bond choices for renovating elementary schools in November: a $64 million bond to renovate four elementary schools and a $32 million bond to renovate two schools while seeking state funding for the others.

City Councilor Jill Duson, who supports the $32 million bond, supported the investment in Casco Bay High School, because she believes the elementary schools will be funded over the high school. “I actually think this project may have a much slimmer likelihood of getting funded.”


The public hearing on the city and school budgets came as councilors are still reviewing City Manager Jon Jennings’s $240 million municipal budget proposal, which would increase resources for community policing in the Bayside and Parkside neighborhoods and increase parking rates by 25 cents an hour. A final vote is not scheduled until May 15.

Only one resident, Steven Scharf, who regularly attends council meetings, offered any comment on the budgets during the hearing, which was originally scheduled for 6 p.m. but didn’t get underway until about 8:30 p.m.

Scharf noted that the school budget was increasing by $1.4 million and that city spending was up $3.1 million. He also warned that the sewer rate is increasing.

“Normally these hearings are held at the beginning of these meetings so the public can attend and be part of it,” Scharf noted. “I really wish there was a lot more members of the public here to comment on the budget.”

He added: “We are spending more money in the city.”

The biggest unanswered question in the municipal budget is whether the city will provide General Assistance to asylum seekers who will soon become ineligible for state aid under a law enacted two years ago.

Asylum seekers mostly enter the U.S. legally and seek to stay because they fear being harmed or persecuted if they return home. Asylum seekers have to wait six months after filing their asylum application to be able to work and they often rely on General Assistance to meet their basic needs for food and housing. It can take years before their asylum cases are adjudicated, although they typically can hold jobs for much of that time.

Until two years ago, Portland had been providing General Assistance to asylum seekers, which is partially reimbursed by the state. But the LePage administration took the city to court, where a judge ruled that the city was violating federal law because the Maine Legislature never passed a bill explicitly making asylum seekers eligible.

The Legislature responded by enacting a bill to provide state aid to asylum seekers, but capped the aid at 24 months.

City Councilor and Finance Committee Chairman Justin Costa said Friday that the committee is still unsure whether it can use local tax money to help the immigrants without violating state or federal laws, or how many people would need such assistance if the city is able to help.

City staff originally estimated that as many as 180 people could be affected and that continuing to provide benefits would cost Portland roughly $950,000 a year. However, Costa said the actual numbers will likely be lower because dozens of people are enrolled in work programs, have received disability benefits or haven’t applied for city assistance in months.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about it,” Costa said. “We’re really trying to get a sense about how many people are going to be affected. I think the realistic number is much lower than that (original estimate).”

The council’s Finance Committee will continue its budget review on Thursday at 5:30 p.m.. The full council will hold workshops on May 8 at 5:30 p.m., before a final public hearing and vote on May 15.

The $105 million proposed school budget would increase property taxes by 2.75 percent, which is significantly lower than Botana’s initial budget, which sought a 6.5 percent tax increase.

Combined, the $345 million municipal and school budgets, which also include county taxes, would increase property taxes by about 2.6 percent, according to Jessica Grondin, City Hall’s communications director.

That would increase the city’s tax rate of $21.11 per $1,000 of assessed value by about 55 cents, adding an estimated $165 a year to the annual tax bill of a home with an assessed value of $300,000.

Once approved by the council, the school budget will be put to citywide referendum on June 13.