By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.
mayor of lewiston
My columns over the past month included an interview with Ed Barrett covering his first year as Lewiston’s City Administrator. It provided a look into the man who serves our city in an exceptional manner.
On January 3 he sent a memorandum to the mayor and members of the Lewiston City Council, entitled “Year-End Roundup.” I thought it very well covered the issues those of us on the city council dealt with and the assistance we received under Ed Barrett’s leadership with support from city staff.
With Ed’s permission, I share it with you, as I believe you will find it most informative. So here it is:
Edward A. Barrett’s Year-End Roundup
As we begin a new year, it may be useful to take a few minutes to review the issues and accomplishments of 2010. With the press of normal business, we don’t often take the time to sit back and reflect on the challenges and accomplishments of the past.
The following summarizes some of the major issues and accomplishments of the city over the past year.
Casino Proposal. Late in 2009, a group of local investors approached the City Council seeking approval for a casino on the Bates Mill 5 property. In January, and without discussion with the new council, they initiated a local referendum for this purpose.
The language of the referendum was both substantively and technically problematic to the city. We initiated negotiations with this group and developed revised language that addressed the city’s concerns. This language subsequently went to local referendum in June and was overwhelmingly approved by city residents. The first option payment was made in June; the next is due at the end of February.
While the statewide approval of a casino in Oxford County may have an impact on this proposal, the local group plans to continue their efforts.
Bates Mill 5. Due to both the interest expressed in this property as a potential casino location and questions about the existence of an unreleased mortgage related to the city’s parking agreement with Bates Mill LLC, the city council placed demolition of this mill on hold and redirected the bond funds authorized for it toward street reconstruction.
Subsequently, the mortgage was released. The option with the casino developers remains in place. The City of Lewiston is now in a position to either proceed with the casino project or, if it does not go forward, take appropriate action in regard to this building.
Lincoln Street Garage. The Lincoln Street Garage project was both controversial and educational in that it required the City of Lewiston to carefully review and evaluate its parking agreement with Bates Mill LLC.
Prior to awarding the contract, the council chose to eliminate the retail/commercial space initially proposed for the garage in order to reduce costs, increase the number of available parking spaces and avoid competing with other available commercial space in the downtown.
The council subsequently awarded the construction contract and, after considerable debate, authorized the necessary bonds. The garage opened in December. Of note, the per-parking-space cost of this project was substantially below estimate due to the economy and competitive bidding environment.
2010 Operating Budget. When the 2009 operating budget was adopted in May 2009, it relied heavily on a series of one-time revenues and anticipated budget reductions. Many of these reductions were not implemented prior to January.
In addition, the budget relied on about $2.3 million in one-time revenues, primarily the use of undesignated fund balance and $1 million returned to the city from the school department. Given these factors, the City of Lewiston faced ending the year deep in the red on a current revenue basis. A number of steps were taken to address this.
The city council authorized staff to go forward with a variety of as-yet-unimplemented actions, including significantly modifying spring cleanup, removing streetlights and eliminating the courtesy parking ticket program. Staff worked diligently to keep expenses as low as possible. A number of vacant positions were held open.
As a result of these efforts and a mild winter, which kept Public Works’ expenses low, we ended the year in significantly better shape than expected. Of the almost $2.3 million in surplus included in the budget, we actually used only $840,000.
This was primarily due to actual expenses coming in at over $1.3 million below the approved budget. This was a group effort on everyone’s part, assisted by a little help from Mother Nature.
2011 Budget. In addition to addressing the issues posed by the 2009 budget, the 2010 budget created even greater challenges. Excess school department funds were no longer available, and prudent financial management required that we begin reducing our reliance on fund balance.
State aid to municipalities was disproportionately cut. Based on departmental requests, we faced a $4 to $5 million shortfall. Council and staff worked diligently to address these budget issues through a combination of service reductions, including the elimination of 20 positions, selective fee and service charge increases and a small property tax rate increase of about two percent.
This was the most difficult budget in my professional career and one that pleased virtually no one. Given the circumstances, however, it was a responsible and defensible compromise. Had the state legislature not dramatically cut municipal revenue sharing, property taxes would not have increased.
Organizational Changes. As a result of staff retirements and budget reductions, a number of organizational changes were made. With the promotion of Heather Hunter to Finance Director, that office was reorganized, effectively eliminating her prior position as Deputy Director.
The Public Works and Public Services Departments were merged under Dave Jones. The position of Community Development Director was eliminated with the retirement of Jim Andrews. Finally, the Personnel Director position was eliminated as of the end of 2010 when Denis Jean retired and his duties were transferred to Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau.
These changes have placed additional duties and responsibilities on a number of key staff members, all of whom have accepted the changes willingly and risen to the challenge.
New and Refinanced Bonds. Given historic low interest rates, we issued our most recent bonds at a very favorable interest rate of 2.46%. Outstanding taxable bonds were refunded, lowering our interest rate from 6.9 to 2.83% with a net present value savings in excess of $700,000. The City of Lewiston maintained its AA- bond rating.
Strategic Plan. The draft strategic plan was taken off hold and revised and updated through staff/council committees and the hard work of Community Relations Coordinator Dottie Perham-Whittier and Library Director Rick Speer. The revised plan was subsequently adopted by the city council.
Street Projects. With city council direction to reprogram certain bond funds from the demolition of Bates Mill No. 5 and the proposal to replace the Beech Street bridge, we were able to undertake additional road reconstruction projects this year, including: Switzerland Road and portions of College, Pond, Old Greene, Cotton and Crowley roads.
The state/federally funded Pine Street project is notable in that it allowed us to resurface this street and redesign it for safety purposes, reducing the prior two lanes to one. We hope to take a similar approach to Ash Street in the upcoming construction season.
Downtown Projects. A number of downtown projects either began in 2010 or have been approved with construction scheduled in 2011. The most notable of these is the Lofts at Bates Mill, a mixed-income project that will test the market for multi-family reuse of old mill space.
If successful, this may show that such units are feasible and desirable in Lewiston. Others include: 269-271 Park Street, which is planned for two condominium units; 84 Lisbon Street; In-Town Manor on Pine Street; and 223 Lisbon Street.
None of these projects would be possible without some form of assistance from the City of Lewiston. Projects under construction include the CCI office building on Bates Street and a transitional housing project on Pine Street.
Main Street Traffic Safety Project. City staff coordinated a series of public meetings on this project to identify and address neighborhood concerns focused on the proposal to eliminate left-hand turns into and out of Brooks Street and certain businesses on Main Street near Strawberry Avenue.
After considerable discussion and negotiations with the Maine Department of Transportation, an agreement was reached to eliminate the raised median, subject to performance criteria related to the number of future accidents in this area involving left turns. The project was subsequently approved by the city council and will be under construction next year.
It will address a safety and capacity issue at the intersection of Main and Strawberry Streets and will allow additional development in this area.
Exit 80. Exit 80 improvements are a major priority for the city council in order to support development in the South Lewiston growth area. Staff is working closely with the Maine Turnpike Authority and the MDOT on this project and on the intersection of Plourde Parkway and Lisbon Street.
The approach toward improving Exit 80 is now set following city council approval of a Single-Point Urban Interchange (SPUI). Construction, which will occur over a number of years, will begin in the coming construction season. Staff continues to work with MDOT to evaluate options to improve the Plourde Parkway/Lisbon Street interchange.
Other Notable Items. New ordinances regulating medical marijuana were adopted, including regulation of primary caregivers handling two to five patients;
The cable franchise with Oxford Networks was eliminated at their request, but in a manner that holds the city harmless financially and provides certain operational benefits through the extension of Oxford’s high speed network;
The Kennedy Park pool house was completed in time for this swimming season;
An ordinance adopting the Property Assessed Clean Energy Program (PACE) is now in place, allowing property owners in Lewiston to take advantage of this Energy Maine Program once it is up and running;
The city council approved the creation of a Downtown Neighborhood Action Advisory Committee to work with staff toward the continued implementation of the Downtown Neighborhood Plan.
The first city-wide auction was held, producing $83,000 in revenue;
Sunnyside Park saw the installation of new playground equipment thanks to a cooperative effort between the neighborhood association and our Community Development Block Grant program.
The monthly report was reformatted to make it more interesting and readable, both for the city council and the public.
While the last year has been challenging from the point of view of city finances and budgets, it is also a year where progress has been made on a variety of fronts. None of this would have been possible without the direction provided by the city council and the efforts of city employees at all levels.
Challenges will remain in the coming year as we continue to work on major issues and priorities in an environment of limited resources and uncertainties about future support from both the state and federal governments. At the same time, such challenges should not deter us from actively pursuing the priorities established by Council and meeting the service demands of the community.
I look forward to continuing to work with you in the coming year to address these challenges and continue to move Lewiston forward. — Ed Barrett
See Mayor Gilbert’s personal blog at www.MayorLarryGilbert.com.