Tuesday, May 20, 2008

PRESS HERALD

http://pressherald.mainetoday.com/story.php?id=188879&ac=PHnws

Approved Portland city budget spares Reiche library

City councilors pass a $185 million budget that will reduce the number of polling places.

By KELLEY BOUCHARD, Staff Writer May 20, 2008

The Reiche Branch of the Portland Public Library will stay open for another year, but the number of polling places will be reduced from 16 to six, under a $185 million municipal budget that was approved unanimously by the Portland City Council on Monday.

Both issues generated strong public reaction in the final week of deliberation over a budget that reduced many city services and eliminated 93 jobs through attrition and layoffs.

Councilors voted 8-1 to restore $30,000 for the Reiche Branch, as proposed by Councilor David Marshall. They transferred the money from a contingency fund, so the change didn't increase the municipal budget. The main library and its five branches will get the same appropriation – $3.1 million – that they got this fiscal year, covering 82 percent of the library budget.

Councilors who supported the measure said they were swayed by library officials' promise that it would give them a year to analyze their facilities and services and work with the community to develop a long-range plan to address rising costs, limited financial resources and changing library needs.

"We need to avoid the summary execution of the Reiche Branch that the library trustees have proposed," said Councilor Daniel Skolnik.

Councilor Jill Duson, who opposed restoring the Reiche Branch's funding, said she couldn't support last-minute changes to the budget because the finance committee worked hard to balance competing community interests.

"They all resonate with me," Duson said.

The council strongly backed City Clerk Linda Cohen's plan to save about $15,000 on major elections, which cost about $40,000 each. The plan reduces the number of mainland polling places from two to one in Districts 1 and 2, and from three to one in Districts 3, 4 and 5. It also eliminates polling places on Cliff and Great Diamond islands, but keeps one on Peaks Island.

Nine residents spoke against Cohen's plan, saying that it will decrease voters' access and increase lines at the polls, which could discourage people from voting, especially younger voters. One resident supported the reduction, saying he had lived in larger cities that had fewer polling places.

In the end, the council voted 7-2 against a proposal by Councilor Kevin Donoghue, which Marshall supported, to keep polling places on Cliff and Great Diamond islands, which cost a total of $2,500 per election. Donoghue said it would be costly and inconvenient for islanders to take a ferry to vote at the District 1 polling place on the mainland.

Most councilors said they believe Cohen will promote public awareness of the changes and encourage voter participation, especially through absentee voting, which represents 30 percent to 50 percent of voting statewide.

In a memo to the council, Cohen said participation increased from 31,000 voters in the 2000 presidential election, when Portland had 24 polling places, to 35,000 voters in the 2004 presidential election, when there were 17 polling places.

In passing the budget, the council also set a property tax rate for the year that starts July 1. The combined $274.5 million for municipal and school budgets will increase Portland's tax rate by 64 cents (3.7 percent), from $17.10 to $17.74 per $1,000 of assessed property value. At that rate, the tax bill on a $230,000 home will increase $147, from $3,933 to $4,080.

The city budget is $1 million (0.5 percent) higher than the current budget, which ends June 30.

The council and Portland voters previously approved an $89.5 million school budget that eliminated 48 jobs – 28 positions left vacant this year and 20 positions to be cut in 2008-09.

The school budget for the coming year is $3.85 million (4.5 percent) higher than the current $85.7 million budget.

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

kbouchard@pressherald.com

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