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City councilors, state legislators talk money, mandates

Despite covering more than 15 topics during a discussion with state legislators, shifts in funding from Augusta became the primary focus of discussion when city officials met with lawmakers Thursday morning.
The City Council's Legislative Committee met with Portland's delegation to the Maine Legislature to discuss the city's priorities for the upcoming session. State funding for education, capital projects, local option taxes and a range of other policy topics kept the conversation moving during the hour and a half session.
When it comes to economic development and cultivating a strong work force, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said the best way to address those issues is through properly funding education.
"The investment in education is critical," he said.
Mayor Michael Brennan said the school system and the city are preparing a $40 million to $50 million bond package that would make improvements in the district's elementary schools, primarily at Hall School. He said though Hall School ranks twelfth on the list for state funding, the state only plans on contributing toward the top six and intends on freezing the list for five years.
School board member Justin Costa said it's important that people understand the magnitude of improvements that are being asked for and funded through the bond package. He said any assistance the state can provide to make the much needed improvements would be helpful.
Keeping with the education theme, city officials were curious to acquire more information on the potential budget impacts of the soon-to-open Baxter Academy, a charter school recently approved by legislators.
Brennan said it's his understanding that for each student who leaves the Portland school system and enrolls in a charter school, it will cost the taxpayers $10,000 per pupil. He said the school system is obviously concerned about how many Portland students will opt to attend the charter school and the financial impact.
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, sponsored a bill that would set aside a budget line at the state level to cover the cost of students attending charter schools instead of having cities and towns bear the costs, said Brennan, and the mayor said he'd be supportive of that legislation.
Costa said he'd prefer the state establish a separate line item to pay for students who attend charter school rather than putting it on the individual school districts. He said the school districts are still unclear on exactly where that money will come from and when it will come due.
Costa said there needs to be more clarity for local school officials on how the charter school funding piece will work.
A last school issue was the matter of a referendum for the budget and getting rid of the statutory requirement for a vote.
"I would say this is a major priority for the city," Brennan said, and the process is costly and not necessary.
Alfond said it's a difficult bill because last time a measure like that was proposed the sponsor was inundated with emails about concerns that the Legislature was attempting to take away the right to vote on the budget, but added it is worth revisiting.
"It is definitely worth having the conversation," he said.
In city money matters, Brennan said he'd like the legislators to keep an eye on the state's proposed bonding package. He said the city previously understood that the LePage administration would include $3 million for the waterfront but that was dropped.
Bonding for both ocean and river and lake waterfront development is an issue that matters to more communities than just Portland, said Brennan, and could facilitate more economic growth in the state.
Councilor Ed Suslovic said he was interested to know if there would be any assistance from the state that could help fund the more than $170 million in combined sewer overflow upgrades that are being mandated by federal legislation to curb sewage runoff. He said he understands there's a tough fiscal climate, but communities besides Portland are trying to find ways to deal with the same mandates.
Councilor John Anton said, given that the solution to the capital costs of the upgrades may likely be a somewhat regressive user fee, he sees it as a place where a local-option tax could be used.
Brennan said the city is supportive of legislation that would allow municipalities to institute a local option tax on items like meals and lodging.
Legislative matters with a financial impact on the city weren't the only ideas up for discussion during the meeting.
Trish McAllister, neighborhood prosecutor for the Portland Police Department, said she'd like to see the Legislature change a state law regarding when a judge can impose community service. She said current law allows someone convicted of a low-level misdemeanor to be sentenced to community service but not for civil violations.
"It's a pretty easy change," she said, and many defendants can't or won't pay the fines associated with city ordinance violations.
McAllister said she thinks the community wants to see people doing community service associated with civil violations.
Since civil violations wind up on the unified criminal docket, Rep. Mark Dion, D-Portland, asked if it's possible to have a magistrate handle those cases instead of a criminal judge.
McAllister said she'd advocate for that type of a change because it separates the civil cases from the criminal proceedings and would focus more attention on the ordinance violations since they are often gone through quickly to make way for other cases.

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