Portland Mayor Michael Brennan on Wednesday used his State of the City address to announce a variety of new initiatives for the upcoming year, including establishing a minimum wage and passing a moratorium on charter schools.
During his 45-minute address, Brennan touched on a wide range of issues and achievements in 2013, including the need to ensure that the city maintains it friendly business environment and takes a more thoughtful approach to development and protecting open spaces.
He also set forth several initiatives for the upcoming year, including the need to address the income gap in the city.
“I think considering a minimum wage for the city is a way to demonstrate a commitment to that issue,” Brennan said.
Portland’s unemployment rate is 4.8 percent, Brennan said, compared to the state’s unemployment rate of 6.1 percent and the national rate of 6.6 percent.
Brennan also acknowledged the “unprecedented” development boom in Portland, which in 2013 saw a nearly $60 million increase in private investment over 2012, from $32 million to $91 million. Another $150 million in development is currently under consideration, he said.
“That shows that people look to Portland as a good place to do businesses and development,” he said.
However, Brennan acknowledged the growing pains of that development.
Residents have filled council chambers to protest the sale of Congress Square Plaza to a developer and to oppose increasing heights for a high-rise development in Bayside. Others have criticized the recent flood of market rate housing, saying affordable housing is needed instead.
A group of residents recently submitted petition papers for a June ballot initiative to increase protections for 60 public open spaces, including Congress Square Plaza.
Brennan vowed to form a committee to inventory the city’s land holdings and have “proactive” and “thoughtful” discussion about which properties to protect and which properties could be developed.
Brennan said the $100 million state transportation bond that was passed by voters last year will help strengthen the economic vitality of the waterfront by dredging the harbor to open up new vessel berthing, connecting rail lines to the International Marine Terminal and improving the Ocean Gateway terminal for the resumption of ferry service to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
He also noted that over half of the city-owned Maine State Pier is leased to seafood processors, which is bringing in $500,000 a year.
“This is a tremendous benefit not only to the business community and Portland but the entire state of Maine,” he said. “We have a vision. We have a plan and the waterfront in Portland will be a central part of the city. And more importantly, it will continue to be a working waterfront.”
Brennan reaffirmed his commitment to public education, saying he will ask the council to follow Bangor’s lead and pass a moratorium on publicly funded charter schools.
Brennan also called on residents throughout the state to contact their state legislators to oppose state budget proposals that would shift tax burdens from the state to local level. Atop that list is a proposal to cut $40 million in revenue sharing.
If that cut goes through, Portland would lose $3 million from its local budget, for a total of $5 million over the last five years, leaving Portland with only $1 million, he said.
“Without that (revenue) we will struggle with our budgeting process” to fund education and services and keep taxes at a reasonable rate, he said. “Please respond to this issue and talk to your legislators and make sure this does not happen.”
Brennan also highlighted the work of several city departments. Firefighters saved 20 lives through advanced CPR techniques and the fire chief is looking to train 1,000 residents in basic CPR in the coming year, he said.
Most of the accolades went to the city’s Health and Human Services Department.
With new case management services, 659 people who were homeless found permanent housing – a 45 percent increase over the previous year, he said. Meanwhile, the city helped 309 homeless and unemployed people find jobs, 60 percent of which were full time.
In the coming months, the city will offer $50,000 to developers to plan a new “housing first” complex, which offers chronically homeless people stable housing with in-house counselors.
He also celebrated the city’s restaurant inspection program, saying the city exceeded state standards by 82 percent and became the first community in the state to post inspections online.
Those changes were made after a series of articles by the Portland Press Herald.
“This is a very important improvement for us,” Brennan said.
While voters overwhelmingly voted in support of legalizing marijuana in November, Brennan said the city needs to do more to address alcoholism and drug addiction, which drives up crime rates in the city.
He said he plans to form a committee to find ways to address these issues, while also finding ways for people to become insured through the Affordable Care Act.
The council will also be asked to seek a national designation for being a “Compassionate City” and adopt a “star rating program” where the city can quantify its performance in areas such as its economy, civil rights and education.
He also called on the city to “double or triple” arts events, such as the closing of Congress Street for the First Friday Art Walk, which featured a circus performance.
After Brennan’s address, things got heated between City Manager Mark Rees and Congress Street resident Janet Daigle, who has been dogging city officials for about a year over property damage she claims was done by a city snowplow.
Daigle has been showing up to council meetings with a damaged fence post and photographs trying to get the city to pay for the damage. Recently she’s called Rees a liar and accused other officials of a cover-up and stealing her money.
Councilors and staff have ignored Daigle for the most part, but on Wednesday Rees had had enough.
He said Daigle was libeling and slandering him and other city officials, and said he may seek his own attorney to put an end to it. “I’m getting tired of being libeled and slandered by you every week,” Rees said.
Daigle responded by saying she was only citing “facts.”
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 5:50 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 3, 2014 to reflect that Janet Daigle accused city officials of stealing her money.