SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City Council approved a $38 million 2021 budget, but not before fielding some last-minute criticism from the public about calls to further defund the police department.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to accept the total combined budget of $112 million, which includes the municipal, school, sewer, enterprise funds and grant fund budgets. Voters will have their say on the $54 million school department budget at the July 14 referendum and if the school budget is confirmed the combined spending plan will have a net impact of 3.78% on the tax rate, according to City Manager Scott Morelli. That adds up to an increase of 72 cents, or $180 for the owner of a $250,000 home. The school portion, Morelli said, accounts for 55 cents of that increase.

Public outcry over racial intolerance following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis has led to calls for government officials to “defund” the police, or reallocate police funding to other community programs, and South Portland residents called for the City Council to do the same during the public comment segment of the June 23 meeting.

“How can you say that this is not the time for more change?” said Sascha Brunning, referring to comments during a lengthy workshop last week where officials said such defunding should not happen right away.

Bri Bowman said she agreed and also saw no reason to wait.

“Procedure should not stall our ability to make progress now,” she said. “I would encourage you to take bold action now.”

Gabriel Faulkner-Macklin called the budget “fiscally irresponsible” and said he felt the police budget contains funding for “a ridiculous amount of overtime.”

In response, Councilor Misha Pride noted that many actions take smaller steps over time. He encouraged residents to remain engaged as the city begins work in the coming months over the next budget. He said more substantive cuts can be made with time and consideration, rather than in a rush during the final weeks of budget deliberations.

“We’re not saying, ‘Not now, later,'” he said. “We’re saying, ‘Now, but not this budget.'”

Councilor April Caricchio, who called allegations that the council was neglecting its duty “harsh,” also encouraged the public to stay engaged.

“We need to hear you for the next year,” she said. “You can’t go away.”

Councilor Claude Morgan pointed out how defunding the city police department will simply force the city to shift its policing burdens on to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department, an action that would ultimately take the power to make changes to police policy away from the city.

“If we have to rely on the sheriff’s department, we don’t get a say in what their policies are,” he said.

Mayor Katherine Lewis pointed out that during a marathon workshop session last week the city agreed to divert $25,000 from the police budget to fund the creation of a new human rights commission, which she said speaks volumes about the city’s commitment to fighting racism.

“We are finally starting to address systemic racial inequities,” she said.

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