Portland city councilors will vote Monday on a budget that restores social service cuts proposed by City Manager Jon Jennings and trims nearly $500,000 from the school department’s requested budget.

But a proposal to decommission a fire engine and redeploy its crew has become the latest budget flashpoint as firefighters and community leaders rally to keep the truck in service. City officials said reassigning the firefighters assigned to the truck would reduce overtime and save between $500,000 and $600,000 within the fire department’s $18.2 million budget. Overall, the general fund municipal budget stands at about $206 million.

The council’s Finance Committee on Wednesday recommended restoring financial support for asylum seekers and keeping open a third overflow homeless shelter so that no one in need would be turned away. It also voted unanimously to trim the school budget by $450,000 – a move that could delay plans to add resources aimed at allowing students with behavior issues to spend more time in regular classrooms.

The committee’s budget adjustments would result in a slight reduction in the property tax increase, from a combined 4.2 percent increase to a 4 percent increase, City Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said. The committee’s recommended budget would increase the mill rate to $23.37 per $1,000 of valuation, adding about $214 to the tax bill of a home valued at $240,000.

The combined school and city budget faces further votes – and possible amendments – by the full council on Monday.

FIRE TRUCK

About 30 people gather outside Portland’s Munjoy Hill fire station Friday to protest a budget proposal to decommission Engine 1 and reassign its crew. Press Herald photo by Ben McCanna

Left unresolved is the fate of Engine 1 on Munjoy Hill. The proposed budget would continue to fund one fire truck and an ambulance at the Munjoy Hill station. And no firefighters would lose their jobs.

But firefighters and community leaders are rallying in an effort to save the fire engine that would be decommissioned. The firefighters union has been dropping fliers at homes throughout the neighborhood in opposition of the cut.

The Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization held a news conference in front of the station on Friday afternoon to oppose the cuts. In an email Thursday, the group said the proposal “presents a clear and deadly risk to all of Portland.”

Jay Norris, the organization’s president, issued a warning to councilors during a public hearing Tuesday.

“We’re pleading with you not to screw with our fire station,” Norris said. “And if you do, there are consequences.”

Fire Chief Keith Gautreau pushed back on the safety concerns, noting that an ambulance and fire truck would remain in service on Munjoy Hill and that back-up was a mile away at Central Station.

Gautreau said it’s common for fire trucks and ambulances to cover calls in other districts and neighborhoods, and the department needs more administrative support for EMS services, which make up the bulk of service calls.

“I would not have presented this plan if I thought there would be an impact on safety for my firefighters or the taxpayers,” Gautreau told the committee on Tuesday night.

Gautreau recommended decommissioning Engine 1 and reassigning the 12 firefighters who staff the engine to reduce overtime costs and increase administrative support for EMS. Overtime has routinely exceed $1 million in recent years and is projected to reach $1.6 million this year.

Nine firefighters would be put into a labor pool that could be tapped when other firefighters go on leave, which on average has been about a dozen a week. Three other positions would provide administrative support to ensure that the city is receiving all of its eligible EMS reimbursements.

Gautreau said the move would reduce the number of firefighters on duty at any given time by three people, from 46 to 43. A Maine Sunday Telegram analysis in 2013 concluded that Portland had more firefighters per capita than any other midsized city in New England.

And city staff reached a similar conclusion in a more recent analysis.

The firefighters union has made a counterproposal to hire additional firefighters to reduce overtime.

Mayor Ethan Strimling said he plans to offer an amendment Monday that would add nine additional firefighters to the city budget. O’Connell said each position would cost the city $71,300. That would add nearly $641,000 to the budget.

SCHOOL BUDGET TRIMMED

The council’s three-member Finance Committee on Wednesday voted to reduce the school budget by $450,000 – a reduction that could be made up by delaying a program for special needs students, among other things.

Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana recommended – and the Board of Education unanimously approved – a $117.8 million budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. About 60 percent of it was for fixed-cost increases, including contractual wage increases. And the rest was for investments in the district’s long-term plan, Portland Promise.

Board Chairman Roberto Rodriguez said in a Facebook post Thursday morning that the board already has begun discussing ways to meet the council’s $450,000 reduction. He noted that the budget still includes investments in expanding pre-kindergarten.

“This is, overall, a very good outcome after a long and at times complicated process,” Rodriguez said.

Alicia Gardiner, the school finance director, said the board was considering the following reductions: Delay hiring one new social worker and four new ed techs to provide more support to special needs high school students so they can spend more time in regular classrooms ($158,000); finding other revenue to purchase emergency radios ($48,000); cutting $23,000 for new school furniture; reducing the school board’s contingency fund; purchasing Chromebooks rather than Macbooks for elementary school teachers.

FUNDING ADDED FOR ASYLUM SEEKERS, HOMELESS, MORE

The council’s three-member Finance Committee also voted unanimously to add $125,000 back into the municipal side of the budget.

Jennings, the city manager, originally recommended a $206.6 million municipal budget – a figure than includes a 5.6 percent, or nearly $351,500, increase in county taxes. Jennings said he did not include funding for any of the council’s priorities, such as implementing its pesticides ordinance, since councilors did not provide clear guidance ahead of budget deliberations.

Jennings had proposed phasing out the Portland Community Support Fund, which provides aid to asylum-seekers who are not eligible for state-funded General Assistance. He also proposed eliminating a second overflow shelter for the Oxford Street Shelter, which serves homeless adults. His aim was to generate a discussion among councilors about two controversial city policies. But councilors have yet to fully debate those issues.

The finance committee – with little discussion Tuesday – unanimously restored $45,000 needed to staff the second overflow shelter, which is the city’s General Assistance office; and add back the $50,000 that was cut from the support fund. Councilors said they would have a future discussion about setting a policy direction for the support fund early this summer.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who chairs the committee, said that the fund has strayed from its original mission, which was to continue providing support to asylum-seekers expected to lose state benefits in 2015.

A mistake by Gov. Paul LePage ultimately kept most asylum-seekers eligible for state General Assistance. New rules limit eligibility for two years and only provides aid to people with valid visas or who have filed an asylum application.

Portland’s local fund has been used to help people who fall through the cracks at the state level, which some councilors said was never the intent of the original program.

Strimling applauded the move. He called for the cuts to be restored. And on Wednesday Councilor Justin Costa put forward the amendments. Both serve on the committee.

“These are really important steps,” Strimling said. “I think these will ease a lot of minds in the community.”

The committee also added $20,000 for Cultivating Community, a nonprofit that manages the city’s community garden plots.

Additionally, Strimling said he plans to offer an amendment Monday to add $81,000 so the city can fully implement its pesticides ordinance. The funding would allow the city to hire an additional maintenance worker and upgrade its irrigations system – moves critical in the city’s timeline for transitioning its athletic fields to organic.

The council could also consider other amendments to the budget, including additional funding for the city’s planning department. And Strimling has said he is interested in increasing building permit fees and rental registration fees to offset the tax impact of the budget.

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