South Portland council OKs $28.8 million budget, school iPads

Posted June 20, 2013, at 7:14 a.m.
Last modified June 20, 2013, at 7:43 a.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — A reversal on school spending preceded approval of municipal spending at Monday night’s City Council meeting.

Councilors also postponed indefinitely an order to declare two Wythburn Road properties public nuisances, after they were satisfied with an action plan to clean up the properties and complete a home expansion by owner Craig Patterson.

City property owners will see an increase of 40 cents per $1,000 of assessed value from the current $16.50 as a result of the $89 million spending appropriation for fiscal 2014.

The appropriation includes spending for municipal and School Department operations and the city share of Cumberland County operations. The budgets are funded in part with $57.1 million in tax property revenues, an increase of $1.17 million.

The $42.3 million education budget was approved by residents on June 11.

The $28.8 million municipal budget requires $17.47 million in property tax revenues, an increase of nearly $204,000. City Manager Jim Gailey and councilors delayed the appropriation vote until they knew how the biennial state budget for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 would be shaped.

A $6.3 billion state budget was passed by the Legislature and awaits a decision by Gov. Paul LePage. Gailey said he anticipates the city will lose $651,000 in state revenue sharing of sales and income taxes, but said last week he had only budgeted for about $500,000 of that.

Councilors also approved a 1.5 percent cost of living increase for 129 nonunion municipal employees, 29 of whom are part-time. City sewer rates were set at $4.57 per 100 cubic feet of water consumption, an increase of 9 cents.

By a 6-0 vote, with Councilor Melissa Linscott absent, councilors reversed a 3-3 June 3 vote that blocked the School Department from spending $785,000 to buy 860 iPads and accessories for high school students.

The purchase of the iPads in a four-year lease agreement is part of the Maine Technology Learning Initiative that will also supply the devices to seventh- and eighth-graders through funding by the Maine Department of Education.

The June 3 vote, with Councilor Al Livingston absent, had Linscott and councilors Jerry Jalbert and Michael Pock opposing the purchase. Before public comment at a June 10 council workshop, Jalbert said he would move to reconsider the vote at Monday’s meeting.

After Jalbert said he would reconsider his vote, councilors heard about 40 parents, staff and students talk about the need for digital devices in classrooms. Before Monday’s vote, School Superintendent Suzanne Godin said the choice of iPads was well thought out.

“The School Board has been proactive and has done its due diligence,” Godin said.

Jalbert said his vote switch stemmed from learning more about the entire spending for networks, device covers and the iPads, but said the vote was a critical reminder of checks and balances needed to ensure tax money is wisely spent.

Council approval is required for municipal and school purchases costing at least $40,000.

Pock, who questioned the need for the devices June 3 and remained wary of the cost, said his change of heart came after listening to others.

“I have been re-educated,” he said. “I was greatly impressed by students commenting at the workshop last week.”

Funding for the iPads comes from accumulated reserve funds, and could be fully paid up front if there is a substantial discount, School Department Technology Director Andy Wallace said.

Use of reserve funds is a practice Colchester Road resident Albert DiMillo Jr. said violates the City Charter and state laws about education spending. DiMillo said he found no evidence the reserve fund transfers were approved in public meetings.

At its Aug. 20, 2012, meeting, however, the School Board shifted $300,000 of a $600,000 surplus to its technology fund.

The charge of secrecy by DiMillo brought an angry response from School Board Chairman Rick Carter.

“I am dumbfounded (that) I have to stand up here and explain (that) this is just someone who does not agree with us,” Carter said.

Councilors were also unanimous in rejecting any further action to declare the Wythburn Road properties owned by Craig Patterson and the Nataleen A. Patterson trust as public nuisances.

The question was first considered June 3 at a public hearing on a complaint by city Code Enforcement Officer Patricia Doucette.

Doucette sought the declaration to get a cleanup order for removal of construction materials, refuse and other alleged safety and health hazards, while also getting Patterson to complete an expansion of his home at 119 Wythburn Road.

The order was postponed to allow Doucette, the Pattersons and their lawyer, Michael Vaillancourt, to develop a remediation plan.

Gailey said all parties approved to the plan Monday afternoon. It requires completion in stages through next May. None of the parties attended the council meeting.

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