The Portland City Council is starting its 186th session with the same nine members and a lot of work to do.
A special council meeting was held Monday, during which Councilors Belinda Ray and Spencer Thibodeau were inaugurated for their second term, and Councilor Nicholas M. Mavodones for his eighth.
Delivering opening remarks, Mayor Ethan Strimling said he thinks 2019 will be the most productive year yet for the City Council, and hopes that over the next year his colleagues listen “to those with the least powerful voice and make their lives better.” He advised councilors to prepare for several key challenges ahead by staying connected to their constituents.
“We must stay connected to the family who wants the best education for their child; to the worker who must work two jobs to pay the rent; to the senior who is struggling to pay for heat; to the small business owner who is trying to retain employees; to the neighborhood that will be underwater if we don’t get serious about climate change,” said Strimling. “To the young adult who is struggling with addiction or mental illness; to the homeless immigrant desperate for an affordable place to live; to the lobstermen trying to find a place to move their catch.”
Ending his remarks, Strimling added, “Let’s get to work.”
The City Council will officially identify their collective goals during a meeting scheduled for January 28. As we approach the holiday season and the new year, here are the major agenda items still stuck in committee, which the Mayor and other leaders in City Hall aim to prioritize.
Approving a location for a new mega shelter
In November, the council scrapped their initial idea of building a 150-bed homeless shelter miles from downtown next to the historic Barron Center at Nason's Corner, after immense pressure from residents of that neighborhood and advocates for the homeless, who are instead pushing for a more holistic approach that includes several "scatter-site" facilities.
Last week, the council voted to approve of a plan to build a 150-bed mega-shelter, in addition to partnering with three local agencies to build five more smaller shelters throughout the city, adding 131 more beds. It has not been determined where these shelters will be built.
Some have already criticized the new plan, arguing that it doesn’t do enough to address the root causes of pervasive homelessness, like drug addiction, mental illness, a lack of affordable housing, and over-policing. On Monday, Tania Tonos, a Portland resident and member of Homeless Voices For Justice, voiced concerns that the council is not including homeless folks in the deliberation process.
“We are asking the city council and the police department to actually talk with us,” said Tonos. “One shelter won’t work. Arrests for minor offenses is not a solution either. This creates an endless cycle of homelessness.”
Coming up with a new plan that both adequately addresses the needs of Portland’s homeless and doesn’t create unnecessary tension between other residents of the city is the single biggest task the City Council has before it in 2019.
Launching ReCODE Portland
Councilor Kimberly Cook said that her priority in the next session is starting work on ReCODE Portland, a new committee formed earlier this year that aims to rewrite and simplify the city’s Land Use Code for the first time in over 50 years.
This committee plans to incorporate new standards for development, environmental resources, historic preservation, housing policies, signs, and parking, with the goal of ensuring that there’s no unclear, outdated or duplicative language in the city’s code. City leaders hope this will make the document more accessible to the public.
Mandating paid sick time
Mayor Ethan Strimling — who championed the paid sick leave initiative written and proposed by the Southern Maine Workers' Center and the Maine Women’s Lobby — said that some version of the ordinance will be ready in the new year.
“We’re almost there,” he said.
The proposal aims to offer one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked and is estimated to impact 19,000 workers in the city. It’s currently slogging its way through the Health and Human Services Committee where Chair Belinda Ray is considering editing the proposal to include a probationary period of 90 days before new workers can start earning paid sick time, which may render seasonal workers all but ineligible.
Implementing universal pre-k
In 2014, the Maine Legislature passed LD 1530 which established a plan to provide pre-school for children who are four years of age and enrolled in the public school system. Portland receives some funding from the state for pre-K programs, but according to Anna Trevorrow, the former chairwoman of the Portland Board of Public Education, it does not serve all the city’s students and provisions in the city's school budget need to made to accommodate them.
The City Council plans to evaluate financial proposals to fully fund the universal pre-K program in 2019. Councilor Justin Costa said that with Janet Mills as Governor, the council will be able to collaborate with the state and make progress on this issue.
Investing money in the Housing Trust Fund
The city’s Housing Trust Fund — which is generated from short-term rental registration and other various housing and zoning fees — is designed to create an adequate supply of housing for all economic groups. But it’s clearly not enough.
According to Portland Housing Authority, over 1,200 families are currently on waiting lists for affordable housing. Meanwhile the city’s family shelter and emergency shelter are both filled to capacity each and every night.
Councilors will continue to search for sustainable ways to inject more cash into this vital fund, which currently has a balance of $913,502. The Mayor has proposed a one-time $7 million taxpayer-funded housing bond. Councilor and Chair of the Housing Committee Jill Duson has proposed setting aside a portion of the annual Capital Improvement Plan.
Rebuilding Portland’s four public elementary schools
In 2017, Portland voters approved a $64 million school bond to fund necessary renovations at Presumpscot, Longfellow, Reiche and Lyseth elementary schools. Over a year later, work on them has still not begun.
Since then, a new elementary school has opened in Portland, but councilors have yet to allocate the funds necessary to rebuild the original four elementary schools.
Combating Climate Change
Last year, the City Council endorsed two plans relating to climate change. One promises to fully power city operations with renewable energy by 2040, and the second committed Portland to the Paris Climate Agreement, which instructs the City Council to curb carbon emissions by revising land use code, building code, and improving support for electric vehicles, and solar power generation.
Mayor Strimling said on Monday that the council must get serious about these commitments in 2019, as no concrete action around them has been taken yet. Councilor Thibodeau shares the Mayor's sense of urgency on this issue, and said that as Chair of the Sustainability and Transportation committee, he's looking forward to working with South Portland to come up with a long-term climate action plan.
Expanding voting rights to non-citizens
The City Council plans on revisiting a proposal put forth in August which sought to extend voting rights in municipal elections to non-citizens. The Council dropped the proposal after hearing concerns from the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Group and the ACLU of Maine that the well-intentioned proposal could actually empower federal deportation agents and result in legal trouble for undocumented immigrants.
Protecting city workers with responsible contracting
Details on this initiative are sparse, but the Mayor hopes to work with the City Council to put forth a plan which ensures that all workers on public contracts with the city have safe working conditions and are compensated adequately. The goal here is to prevent them from being unable to afford living in the city they work to build and maintain.
Financing property tax relief for seniors
In 2017, the City Council passed the P-STEP program which will give tax rebates of $900 to about 1,000 seniors on fixed income. According to Strimling, due to recent rule changes in the state Legislature that allow municipalities to adopt the program, savings could be upwards of $1,200 per family. The City Council still needs to find a way to fund these tax breaks, which are estimated to cost $250,000 a year.