SOUTH PORTLAND – Based largely on hikes in school spending and initial payments on the high school renovation project, South Portland’s budget for the next fiscal year is expected to jump $2.01 million, or 3 percent, to a new high of $71.37 million.
The proposed budget breaks down to $28.45 million in municipal spending (up $365,963), $38.87 million for public education (up $800,121), $2.08 million for the Cumberland County tax bill (up $2,707) and $1.98 million for the high school renovation project, including $525,000 for the first bond payment and $1.45 million placed in reserve to mitigate the impact on taxes of future payments.
On the school side, that would still cause the elimination of 16 positions, in large part because federal funds used this year to plug a budget gap have run out.
According to City Manager Jim Gailey, South Portland would need to collect $55.3 million from taxes, based on revenue estimates. That’s $1.25 million, or 2.31 percent, more than last year. Assuming total property valuation holds steady at $3.36 billion by the April 1 commitment date, the proposed budget will push the property tax rate up 37 cents, to $16.47 per $1,000 of property valuation.
According to City Assessor Elizabeth Sawyer, the median assessment of a single-family home in South Portland is $195,000. That means the average homeowner can expect to pay an extra $72.15 in taxes this year, if the spending proposals survive the budget process.
“The economic times have presented a number of challenges, which we are still feeling the effects from,” wrote Gailey in a March 19 report to the City Council, which began reviewing the budget in workshop Monday. “Even having the ability to increase the budget, very difficult decisions had to be made by the administration throughout the budget process.”
On the school side, Superintendent Suzanne Godin initially presented a “zero-based” budget that would have held the tax rate steady year-to-year. However, even though the state education subsidy jumped $980,000, temporary funds from federal sources that in this year’s budget totaled $1.6 million will be gone next year.
That and other increases, primarily in contracted salaries, meant the district would have to cut, or not fill, 16 positions in order to leave local tax bills unchanged.
Instead, Godin is recommending a 2.2 percent increase, which either retains or relocates the positions that might have been cut. For example, the Kaler school will still lose some teachers based on enrollment.
At the recommend increase, the only “needs-based” items left off the spending plan, Godin said, are $250,000 in maintenance, $40,000 in professional development, $11,000 for new high school textbooks and $250,000 to expand the preschool program at Kaler.
At its most recent meeting, the majority of the school board backed Godin’s proposed increase.
“I do not think a zero percent budget, based on the needs of South Portland right now, and the needs of our students, is fiscally responsible,” said school board Chairman Tappan Fitzgerald.
“Zero percent isn’t realistic,” agreed school board member James Gilboy.
Only board member Sara Goldberg appeared disinclined to join the consensus.
“We are in a bad economy still, so 2.2 [percent increase] still seems to me a little scary,” she said. “There are a lot of people out there who cannot afford to pay their taxes in this city. That greatly concerns me.”
However, Richard Matthews took the opposite view, stumping for an increase even greater than the recommended amount.
“We have [practically] nothing in this budget for maintenance,” he said.