Friday, May 04, 2007

Press Herald

Told to cut $500,000, schools spent it

By KELLEY BOUCHARD, Staff Writer Portland Press Herald
Friday, May 4, 2007

Portland school officials spent $500,000 that they were supposed to cut from this year's budget, city councilors learned Thursday evening.

The action means school officials defied a City Council order last spring to reduce the $82 million school budget by $500,000.

News of the overspending came as the council's finance committee resumed its largely unwelcome scrutiny of a proposed $86.4 million school budget for the coming year. The council is expected to pass a budget for all city departments on May 21.

School Committee members continued to criticize the council's finance committee for its in-depth study and probing questions, even after school officials revealed that they have overspent the current school budget.

Outside the meeting at City Hall, council finance committee members Edward Suslovic, David Marshall and James Cohen, the chairman, said they were disturbed by the overspending.
Suslovic and Marshall said it raises the question of whether school officials will actually reduce spending if the council orders a budget reduction for the coming year.

"It was a very troubling revelation," Suslovic said.

School officials said they intended to reduce the current year's budget by $500,000 through anticipated salary reductions when long-term employees retired and were replaced by lower-paid new employees.

However, they wound up spending the money to hire 25 additional people, including several special education teachers.

"We just didn't have it to cut," said Superintendent Mary Jo O'Connor after the meeting.

Despite the overspending, O'Connor and School Committee Chairman John Coyne said the council can trust school officials to make real budget reductions in the coming year.

By city charter, the council sets the bottom line for the school budget and school officials decide how to spend it.

The proposed school budget is up $4.4 million, 5.4 percent, over current spending. The proposed $183 million budget for all other city departments is up $8 million, 4.6 percent, over current spending.

School officials have been asking the finance committee for several weeks to recommend a bottom line.

Suslovic said an increase closer to the city's 4.6 percent would be more acceptable. That would require a $750,000 reduction.

Coyne and other School Committee members said a budget reduction of that size would have a significant effect on school programs.

Coyne also said school officials feel "ganged up on" by councilors. Committee member Sarah
Hopkins described it as a "tug of war."

O'Connor offered a final rebuttal against councilors' criticism that school budget information has been late and remains incomplete.

She and her staff have been "wrongly accused of not being forthcoming with information," she said. "It has never been our intention to be sneaky or underhanded."

The council will hold a public hearing on the combined $269 million city and school spending plan at 7 p.m. Monday in the council chamber at City Hall.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Sea Dogs: A Better Deal

The Sea Dogs are asking the City of Portland for a $1.7 million bond to build a new club house. The Sea Dogs have proposed to exchange the financing of the bond financing ($145,000 per year) for Hadlock Field maintenance ($147 million per year), basically a wash. Instead of continuing our subsidy of the Sea Dogs, a better deal would be to ask the team to raise the cost of tickets by one dollar ($1). Since 1994 the average yearly attendance has been around 400,000 people. The extra $400,000 would not only cover the cost of the bond financing ($145,000 per year) but would also clear the City of its $100,000 subsidy and deliver an extra $155,000 to the Sea Dogs for investments in Hadlock Field.

When the Sea Dogs first came to Portland in 1994 it was not clear that a Minor League team would be successful so the City gave incentives and has been subsidizing the team for $100,000 to $200,000 per year.

In the proposal by the Sea Dogs, the bond revenue is traded for field maintenance and results in a wash as far as yearly expenditures are concerned.

The issue is that the $1.7 million bond for the clubhouse will affect our ability to bond in the future. As a City we can only handle a limited amount of bonding obligations, therefore we should prioritize our bonding needs.

In the upcoming year we will be considering:

1. An extra $1 million bond for the Library to move the Public Marking.

2. We will also need to bond for the renovation or rebuilding of Nathan Clifford Elementary School.

3. Not to mention the ongoing issue of the CSO (Combined Sewer Overflow) separation. We are far behind or neighboring cities in seperating the CSO's. The Patriot's Day nor' easter maxed out our sewer treatment plant, forcing enough raw sewerage and run off into the bay to turn it brown.

4. Also, one strategy to develop the Maine State Pier involves bonding $18 million to fix the pier and then to lease the pier to cover the bond financing and allowing the City to collect the full amount of taxes.

Now that the Sea Dogs are a proven minor league baseball team in Portland, we need to consider eliminating our subsidies. A better deal would be to ask the Sea Dogs to increase ticket prices by one dollar in exchange for the adding a $1.7 million bond the City's debt. The extra ticket revenue will clear the City of Portland from all subsidies and liabilities from the team and pass on the maintenance costs of Hadlock Field. Through a better deal we will have $100,000 of flexibility in our City budget to address our needs.

Councilor David A. Marshall

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