The state commissioner overseeing the multimillion-dollar contract that would move Department of Health and Human Services offices from Portland’s peninsula to a site in South Portland told Portland’s mayor Wednesday that he will not reconsider the state’s decision.
H. Sawin Millett Jr., commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, met privately with Mayor Michael Brennan and Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, to discuss the selection of ELC Management Inc., which would build and lease an 80,000-square-foot office building near the Portland International Jetport.
The company was chosen over three other bidders, including two that offered space near downtown Portland.
The new building would house DHHS and Department of Labor offices about four miles from the current DHHS building on Marginal Way, which is within walking distance of most neighborhoods on the peninsula and numerous social service agencies. Critics note that the bus ride from downtown to the site in South Portland takes 80 minutes round-trip.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Millett met with Alfond in Augusta, and Brennan participated via conference call. After the hour-long meeting, Millett took the unusual step of issuing a news release in which he criticized Brennan, a former Democratic state senator, for refusing to talk about access issues that DHHS clients will likely face when the new building opens in 2015.
“I was disappointed to hear Mayor Brennan say that he is unwilling to work with the state to address the concerns he and the Senate president raised on accessibility to the new Portland area consolidated state facility,” Millett said in the statement. “Despite the mayor’s refusal to even talk about this important issue with me, I remain committed to ensuring the accessibility issues are addressed for needy Mainers in Cumberland County before the DHHS and Department of Labor transition to their new location in 2015.”
Jennifer Smith, Millett’s spokeswoman, said Millett assumed that Alfond and Brennan wanted to talk about making services accessible at the new location. Instead, the meeting got heated when Alfond and Brennan pushed Millett to set the selection aside – the state plans to sign a contract this month – and consider other locations in Portland.
“We felt the process we followed was fair and transparent,” Smith said. “The commissioner told them that he will not reverse his decision.”
Smith said Millett would love to meet with city officials and social services agencies to work out a solution to some of the transportation challenges.
She suggested designating a bus that could transport clients of the Preble Street Resource Center to and from the new offices, or arranging to have case managers come to Preble Street to meet with clients.
“We are going to move forward and do whatever we can to make this work,” she said.
Brennan took issue with Millett issuing a news release after the meeting.
“I am shocked and disappointed that the commissioner would put out a news release,” he said. “He greatly mischaracterized our conversation.”
Brennan acknowledged that he refused to discuss accessibility issues, because the South Portland location is not appropriate for the clients it would serve.
He also said that he spoke with Gov. Paul LePage by phone for 20 minutes on Wednesday – before the conference call in Alfond’s office – and that the governor told him he did not care where the new offices would be as long as the taxpayers’ interests were protected.
Brennan said the rent for the building on Marginal Way was to be raised to a level that state officials felt was unreasonable.
LePage said Tuesday in a news release that “it is vitally important that state government spend your money wisely. Consolidating the DHHS welfare office and the Department of Labor jobs office will save Maine’s hard-working taxpayers $14 million” over the 20 years of the lease.
Brennan said he told Millett that the governor was willing to consider other sites in Portland, but Millett “totally dismissed” that.
“They said the state wanted to move forward and work on a bus schedule that would accommodate everyone at the new location. I said, ‘No, we are not at that point in the conversation. Keeping the office in Portland is still on the table,’ ” Brennan said. “We are dead set against that site.”
Alfond and Brennan called on the governor to intervene. Alfond said LePage has the authority to reject ELC Management’s plan and consider other options, including a new office in Portland.
“The press release was a distraction,” Alfond said. “The state is trying to avoid the real issue, which is the location.”
Alfond said his office was never contacted about the plan to move the DHHS building to South Portland. Bid proposals were sought in July. He said social services providers were also left out of the discussion.
Alfond said he understands why Brennan would be reluctant to talk about developing solutions for transporting clients to South Portland.
“The idea that the mayor would want to go into a solution mode just shows how tone-deaf this administration is to the opposition that has surfaced around this issue,” Alfond said.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: