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Portland's ballot questions could cost the city more than $6 million

Portland, Maine at night from the Portland Observatory.
Paul VanDerWerf
via Flickr
Portland, Maine at night from the Portland Observatory.

Portland municipal staff estimate that if voters approve all the questions on the local ballot this fall, it could cost the city upwards of $6.5 million per year.

According to a memofrom Interim City Manager Danielle West, the passage of eight recommendations from a city charter commission would cost around $1 million annually, while five ballot questions would cost the city $5.5 million.

Nearly half of the total increase would come from a ballot question to restrict cruise ships. City staff estimate that would reduce tax and fee revenue from the ships by $3 million each year. Other ballot questions would increase employees' wages and add costs for staffing new programs, such as a Department of Fair Labor Practices.

West said that all of those additional costs would amount to an increase in the property tax mill rate of 3.4%, which would come out to about $161 more each year for a homeowner with the city's median home value of $365,000.

"When you have a significant increase, something else may have to give. And we may have to reduce some other program that we offer, or some other service that we offer, in order to be able to address that significant increase," West said.

Outside groups opposing the proposed changes have already seized on the report, with one saying the questions' passage could mean tax increases or "sharp cuts to city services like public safety and education."

But proponents of the ballot issues raised question about some of the numbers in the memo. The group "Yes for Democracy," which is advocating for passage of the Portland Charter Commission's eight recommendations, said that it appeared that some of the one-time costs have been lumped in with annual costs. The group said that its "best calculation estimates that the total cost would be closer to $500,000, resulting in a tax increase to the median homeowner of about $12."

Wes Pelletier, the chair of the Livable Portland campaign from the Maine Democratic Socialists of America, said the report didn't include some potential revenue sources, such as income from enforcing the city's short-term rental laws. And he added that the new expenses largely represent an investment in a strong local government.

"If they want to blame us, or put the cost on us, for bringing on employees that they can pay well enough to stay on, we can take that," Pelletier said. "And we don't think that's a negative thing."