Portland City Councilor Kim Cook fell on her sword last week.

Cook was looking to eliminate $1 million from the city’s annual borrowing program at the City Council meeting last Wednesday. It was the third consecutive year the city had borrowed $5 million more than the amount of debt being retired, a trend contributing to property tax increases.

“It felt to me that we’re essentially maxing out our credit card as we look towards more difficult budget years, and I was not comfortable with that approach,” Cook said after the meeting.

Her fellow councilors encouraged her to present her 10 ideas for reducing the budget – a sign, she thought, that maybe a few would garner at least some support.

Instead, the council batted them down one by one, in 7-1 votes, with practically no discussion. They even flatly rejected a proposal to cut $50,000 from a playground in Cook’s own district – money she thought could be raised elsewhere.

“We could have done this in one vote,” Cook quipped about midway through the exercise.

Entering her second year representing District 5 on the City Council, Cook is establishing herself as a leading voice of fiscal restraint in Maine’s most progressive city.

She serves on a council full of fellow Democrats and one independent, Belinda Ray. She is not always alone – Councilors Nicholas Mavodones and Jill Duson often raise concerns over costs, too. But Cook is showing she’s not afraid to stick her neck out on spending or to talk about sensitive political subjects, such as the city’s homeless shelter policy.

“She asks very good questions and she’s willing to enter the fray,” said Mayor Ethan Strimling, who has advocated for stronger investments in school and city priorities. “She did not get elected with a rubber stamp and she’s coming in with her own opinion and she’s making that clear.”

HEARS CONCERNS FROM RESIDENTS

In her short time on the council, Cook successfully pushed for a new rule requiring all items coming before the council costing $50,000 or more to have a detailed fiscal impact statement. That measure came after she learned that the newly adopted pesticides ordinance would add hundreds of thousands of dollars in one-time and ongoing expenses to the city budget. Up until that point, fiscal notes were hit or miss. Now, the note must contain a three-year look at costs and revenues.

And in recent months, Cook has been pushing her fellow councilors to look at the city’s homeless shelter policies. The city is considering building a new homeless services center, at an estimated cost of as much as $10 million to build and $1 million a year to operate, in part because it also will have a soup kitchen, she said. Portland shelters are used by people from all over Maine and the country, and Cook wants the council to discuss how much of those costs should be shouldered by Portland taxpayers.

Cook has assumed the role despite the absence of a vocal or active taxpayers group to rally support for fiscal restraint at Portland City Hall. But Cook said she hears concerns about spending from residents in her off-peninsula district and believes her focus on fiscal restraint is why she was elected over two more progressive opponents in 2017.

Strimling, who often is on the opposite end of the fiscal spectrum, noted that the city could be borrowing $20 million above its current levels. He has proposed a $7 million bond to fund yet-to-be-determined housing projects and was a strong advocate for passing the Portland school superintendent’s $113 million budget request without reductions.

‘IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT RENT’

During a council workshop last month, Cook told the city manager that she would only support a 2.8 percent increase in property taxes. Strimling did not give a limit, and instead encouraged school and city leaders to deliver the budgets they think the city needs. Cook wants the budget to grow only on pace with the rate of inflation, but Strimling takes a different approach.

“I don’t believe in creating an artificial cap ahead of time,” Strimling said. “We have to meet the expectations of the city. We have to do the work that needs to be done.”

One place Strimling and Cook agreed was the $64 million bond to renovate four elementary schools. Both supported it. But Cook also said she believes that too much borrowing and costly councilor initiatives end up siphoning money from essential services, such as schools.

Cook, 48, was raised in a blue-collar family in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The daughter of a truck driver father and a mother who punched the same time clock at an AT&T plant for more than 40 years, she’s the first in her family to graduate from college. Cook currently works as a lobbyist in Augusta. Her clients this year include the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission, Maine Battery Stewardship Coalition, Can Manufacturing Institute and Maine Community Health options.

Cook said that property taxes are a big factor in making the city unaffordable to middle-class families. She believes the city should be concentrating on core municipal services, such as education, and maintaining roads and sidewalks.

“If we want to ensure that we continue to have a middle class in Portland, we have to recognize that the property tax burden is a major component of the lack of affordability in our city,” Cook said. “It’s not just about rent. It’s about the cost of a mortgage in Portland.”

‘WE SIMPLY CAN’T DO EVERYTHING’

City Manager Jon Jennings said he appreciates Cook’s approach to city budgeting. But Jennings defended the Capital Improvement Plan passed Wednesday by the council, saying the city is struggling to make up for a lack of investment in the city’s infrastructure decades ago.

Currently, about 14 percent of each tax dollar goes toward debt payments for the city and schools.

One of the major financial drivers in the coming years is the debt service on the city’s pension obligation bond, which will increase by nearly $1 million a year, until it’s retired 2026. And the city will ultimately have to begin paying for the $64 million in school bonds. That reality, coupled with a lack of debt coming off the books in the next few years because of a lack of borrowing during the recession, has city leaders warning about leaner budget times ahead.

“By increasing significantly the amount we borrow each year for the last three years in the CIP, we have increased the property tax burden,” Cook said, “unless, of course, we cut other services in the city, which I don’t see anyone proposing.”

Jennings said he looks forward to working with Cook during the upcoming budget, even though her threshold of 2.8 percent for a tax increase was the lowest of all the councilors. He agrees that the city should be focusing on its core responsibilities, rather than more policy proposals that increase costs to the budget and workloads for city staff.

“We simply can’t do everything around here. We’re not Seattle. We’re not New York. And we’re not San Francisco,” Jennings said. “I greatly appreciate Councilor Cook’s focus on fiscal responsibility and think she’s doing a great job in that area.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings


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