PORTLAND, Maine — Portland City Manager Mark Rees is proposing a $220.9 million municipal budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, a spending plan which would raise property taxes by $84 on the average Portland homeowner if approved.
As much as a pure dollars-and-cents document, the city manager’s budget is often looked at as a guide to his and the council’s priorities for the coming year.
Rees’ budget includes the addition of more than four police department positions compared to the current fiscal year, as well as the equivalent of three or more new positions in the recreation and facilities management, social services and planning and urban development departments.
But with outside forces causing the department of health and human services to close its Health Care for the Homeless Clinic and give up an in-home parenting education program, Rees’ budget calls for nearly 27 fewer positions in the public health sector.
Rees delivered his fiscal year 2015 budget proposal to the City Council at its Monday night meeting, the latest step in a months-long annual process that will include a public hearing on May 5, a council workshop on May 12 and a final council vote as soon as May 19.
“I think we all stand ready, with the finance committee and the council, to start to work through this budget process as expeditiously as we can and have a budget ready for enactment at the end of May,” Mayor Michael Brennan Monday night.
As called for in the city charter, Brennan delivered formal comments on the city manager’s budget proposal, saying generally the spending plan must be both aspirational, innovative and cost efficient.
“The budget should be sustainable, and it should be built on community opportunities,” Brennan said. “At the same time, it should reflect the financial and tax realities we face as a city.”
After its receipt of the spending plan Monday night, the council took the customary step of forwarding the budget to its finance committee for a more thorough review.
Rees’ fiscal year 2015 municipal budget comes in addition to the Portland Public Schools’ budget for the coming year. Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk unveiled his initial $102.3 million school budget draft — a nearly four percent increase — last month.
The city manager’s municipal budget represents an increase of $5.6 million — or 2.6 percent — in expenditures compared to the current fiscal year 2014 budget of $215.2 million. The 2015 budget will increase property taxes by 3.8 percent, or about 37 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
Many of the new hires in Rees’ budget — including a drug enforcement agent, Cheverus High School resource officer and partial year victim witness advocate for the police department — are covered by grants or reimbursements.
Among the 3.5 new positions in the recreation and facilities management budget are a chef and sous chef to head a newly renovated restaurant at the city’s Riverside Golf Course, part of a multifaceted upgrade plan to revive the once slumping attraction.
Conversely, a shift in state and federal funding toward local nonprofits — and away from the city — is contributing to staffing cuts at the department of health and human services.
Portland’s Health Care for the Homeless Clinic lost out to the nonprofit Portland Community Health Center in a recent competitive bid for federal funding to provide medical services for the city’s homeless population. That change will force the clinic to close within the fiscal year and lay off at least 19 full-time and four part-time employees.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit Opportunity Alliance, which had previously paid the city to administer the Maine Families in-home parenting education program, recently announced it would begin running the program itself. Losing that program will force the city to lay off at least two more public health workers.
While staffing at the fire department will stay almost level, Rees proposes restructuring leadership jobs in accordance to a 500-page audit of the department by consultants early last year. The city manager plans to cut a deputy chief and hazardous materials coordinator, as well as partial fire alarm technician and supervisor positions, to help make way for the equivalent of 2.5 new assistant chief jobs to help disperse the administrative workload carried by Chief Jerome LaMoria.
In Rees’ letter to the council supporting his budget recommendation, he noted that the spending plan comes against a backdrop of relative economic prosperity in Portland, with a tax base that grew by $87 million over the past year.
“Private investment levels have tripled, our tax base is up and our population is growing,” Rees told the council Monday night. “We continue to be recognized nationally for all that our city has to offer. And most importantly, we have been able to increase basic city services to the community all while experiencing a decline in serious crimes and public nuisance calls.”
He also pointed out that the city will gain more in revenues from its waterfront properties — Ready Seafood and Shucks Maine Lobster each signed leases last year for space in the city’s Maine State Pier, helping increase waterfront income by $242,000 in 2015 — and will spend $565,000 less on waste disposal thanks to savings passed down by the ecomaine plant.
The city manager is proposing a restructuring of building permit fees “so that they are in line with surrounding communities,” dropping the base fees from $30 to $25, but increasing the amount charged for valuation above $1,000 from 1 percent to 1.1 percent. The change aims to lower costs for small projects and raise them on larger ones, and Rees has logged the tweak as a net positive of $200,000 in fiscal year 2015.
But not all financial changes coming in the next fiscal year will benefit the city.
Rees wrote that the city’s employee pension costs for the year will increase by $812,000 and its state subsidies through the municipal revenue sharing system will drop by $325,000, for instance.