December 16, 2017
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Everything Portlanders need to know about Tuesday’s election

By Jake Bleiberg, BDN Staff
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Jeff Hodgdon puts a sign out on the sidewalk as the polls open at the Portland Expo in November 2016.

With the potential to change how much Portlanders pay in rent and the condition of several city schools, Tuesday’s municipal election will intimately affect the lives of locals.

There’s a lot at stake on Election Day, even without big state or federal races. Here’s what Portlanders need to know before walking into the voting booth.

Ballots and turnout

First off, if you’re unsure of where to vote, you can look it up here. If you’re not yet registered to vote, it’s not too late. You can register on Election Day at your polling place.

Voter turnout is generally low in November elections that, like this year’s, don’t have big up-ticket races. For instance, a fews hours before absentee polls closed Wednesday more than 4,000 Portlanders had cast their ballot early, compared to about 14,000 city residents who voted absentee last year.

That means that each vote will, literally, count more.

Every Portland ballot — which you can see samples of here — will include four referendum questions, two of which are about the same thing, an at-large City Council race, an at-large school board race and a water district race.

Depending on where you live, you also may see council and school board races for your district, Casco Bay Lines director races and a Peaks Island Council race.

We’ll take the things that everyone votes on first.

Question 1: Rent limits

Appearing on the ballot as “rent stabilization” and cast as “fair rent” by proponents and “rent control” by those opposed, Question 1 proposes limiting the amount larger landlords can raise the rent each year and creating a board that would have broad authority over rental matters.

If approved, the measure would be the first of its kind in Maine, according to the Maine Municipal Association.

[Portland council puts questions on ballot that were threatened by deadline mistake]

Just what Question 1 proposes is complicated enough that the City Council decided to put the entire text of the proposed ordinance on the ballot. Here are the high notes:

— The ordinance would limit the amount landlords with six or more units can raise rent annually, pegging increases to inflation and property taxes.

— Landlords, for instance those who’ve improved their properties or done repairs, could petition to raise their rents more, but even approved increases would be subject to a hard cap of 10 percent annually.

— Exempt from these limits are public-housing units, dormitories and owner-occupied buildings with two or three rental units. Landlords who own five or fewer units in Portland and those who own buildings constructed after Jan. 1, 2017, also are exempt.

— Petitions for rent increases above the annual allowable amount would be ruled on by a seven-member volunteer board appointed by the City Council.

— The board would have the power to approve or deny such increases and to adjudicate disputes over rent and evictions. The board could not overrule court eviction orders but could fine landlords if a tenant wasn’t given enough notice or if the eviction was for impermissible reasons.

— The ordinance would also limit the reasons for which a landlord could evict a tenant.

Question 1 is supported by a local group called Fair Rent Portland and is opposed by an association, including many landlords, called Say No To Rent Control. It was brought forward following years of spiking rents in Portland, which saw increases of as much as 40 percent between 2010 and 2015.

Jack O’Brien, a Bowdoin statistician and a leader in the campaign to enact rent limits, has said the ordinance is aimed at pushing back on the gentrification that has made Portland less affordable for low- and middle-income people.

[Landlords rally against rent control in Portland]

Opponents, including Brit Vitalius, the director of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, however, contend the ordinance would stifle the development of new housing that could drive rents down.

Opponents of Question 1 have received rich support from local landlords as wells as landlord associations from around the country and are positioned to far outspend its supporters.

As of its final campaign finance filing before the election, Say No To Rent Control had raised nearly $270,000 and had more than $113,000 on hand. Fair Rent Portland had about $3,000 on hand as of last week.

Question 2: Local zoning control

The second citizen referendum on the ballot is for an ordinance that would allow residents to block zone changes in the area around their neighborhoods. It has the potential to put a new barrier in front of a waterfront development project that proponents see as vital to Maine’s economy.

The initiative sprang from local dissatisfaction with zone changes that allowed large development projects to move ahead, particularly the rezoning of a 45-acre farm to allow for the development of 95 homes.

Zone changes are now reviewed by the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals before being decided on by the City Council, but under the proposed ordinance locals could override this process.

If the measure is approved, locals could block a zone change approved by the City Council by gathering signatures from 25 percent of registered voters who live within 500 feet of the proposed change. The person who applied for the zone change could, in turn, override this by gathering supportive signatures from 51 percent of voters living within 1,000 feet of the area.

[Portland City Council clears way for refrigerated storage ‘critical’ to Maine economy]

Supporters of Question 2 say it will make the city more responsive to the desires of people immediately affected by developments, while its opponents have questioned the legality of the proposed measure and say it will throw up another barrier to building.

One major project that would be thrown into question if the measure is approved is the construction of a large refrigerated storage unit on the western waterfront.

In September, the City Council approved a zone change for the project, which the state government sees as “critical to Portland’s and Maine’s economies. Hours before the vote, opponents of the multimillion-dollar project sent the city a list of more than 100 signatures that could be used to retroactively reverse the council’s decision if Question 2 is approved.

Questions 3 and 4:

The last two local questions on the ballot are competing and deal with borrowing money to renovate city elementary schools.

Question 3 proposes selling bonds for $64 million to pay for renovations at Presumpscot, Longfellow, Reiche and Lyseth elementary schools. Question 4 proposes bonding $32 million to renovate Lyseth and Presumpscot and seeking state funding to pay for work at the other two schools.

Either bond would need a majority of votes to pass. If both questions get more than 51 percent, only the one with more votes will be approved.

[What Portland’s school bond vote could mean for its residents]

If the larger bond is approved, the city would borrow $64 million in stages over the next six years. With interest, this would result in an overall debt of about $92 million. The total debt created by the smaller bond would be about half this sum.

Over the more than two-decade life of the $64 million bond, the city forecasts that its debt service would add $1,128 in property taxes for each $100,000 of home valuation. For instance, with property taxes forecasted to increase by 3.1 percent over a 26-year period, the owner of a $240,000 home could expect the bond to add an average of $104 to their taxes each year for its duration. Again, Question 4 would have a proportionately smaller impact on tax bills.

Despite broad agreement that all four schools badly need work, the school bond question has been one of the most divisive political issues in Portland over the last year. It created weeks of deadlock on the City Council, before councilors eventually struck the compromise that placed both bond questions on the the ballot.

[Portland council deadlocks over $64 million school bond after hours-long discussion]

Proponents of the four-school bond argue that the renovations are long overdue and that the city cannot rely on funding from the state coming through. Supporters of the competing measure contend that it is more fiscally prudent to seek state funding for two schools, and that, if that fails, the city could pass another bond later and still complete work at all four schools on the same schedule.

City Council, At-Large

In the only city-wide council election this year, two progressive community activists are seeking to unseat one of Portland’s longest serving councilors.

Joey Brunelle, a 32-year-old marketing professional, and Bree LaCasse, a 41-year-old development officer for the nonprofit Community Housing of Maine, are challenging Councilor Jill Duson, who is 63 and in her 16th year on the council. A retired attorney, Duson previously headed the compliance department of the Maine Human Rights Commission.

LaCasse and Brunelle favor the four-school bond, while Duson supports the competing measure. All three candidates are opposed to Question 2, the local zoning measure.They are split the rent limits proposed in Question 1, with Brunelle supporting the measure, Duson opposed and LaCasse leaning in favor of it, according to the Portland Press Herald.

City Council, District Four

In District 4, which covers the Back Cove, East Deering, and parts of the Deering Center and North Deering neighborhoods, Kimberly Rich is challenging Councilor Justin Costa.

Costa, 34, is an accountant and has served one term on the council and, before that, two on the school board. Rich, 58, worked as an administrative assistant at Maine Medical Center before jumping into politics this year.

They both support the $64-million school bond and both oppose Question 2. The pair are split on rent limits, with Rich in favor and Costa is opposed.

City Council, District Five

In District 5, which includes Riverton and parts of North Deering and Deering Center, three candidates are vying for the council seat that will be left vacant by Councilor David Brenerman, who is not seeking reelection.

[Portland councilor won’t run, says city doesn’t need full-time mayor]

Kimberly Cook, a 45-year-old attorney and government relations consultant, is competing with Craig Dorais, a 45-year-old patent examiner, and Marpheen Chann-Berry, a 26-year-old digital communications coordinator for the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a left-leaning policy think tank.

All three candidates support the $64-million school bond. Cook is opposed to Question 1, while the other two candidates support the proposed rent limits. She and Chann-Berry are against Question 2, but Dorais favors neighborhood control over zoning.

School Board

All three school board races are uncontested. Mark Balfantz, a lawyer, is running for the at-large seat; Timothy Atkinson, a software engineer, is seeking election in District 4; and incumbent Marnie Morrione is looking to keep her seat in District 5.

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