December 4, 2013

LePage administration defends decision to move DHHS offices from Portland

Critics of the move stage a protest by bus, riding to the proposed new site near the airport.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine Senate President Justin Alfond publicly asked Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday to “take a timeout” and reconsider the state’s decision to move Department of Health and Human Services and Labor Department offices out of Portland.

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Maine Senate President Justin Alfond rode bus No. 5 on Portland's Metro system Tuesday along with other politicians and protesters to see how long the bus ride would be from Portland to the proposed site of the DHHS offices in South Portland.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Thomas Ptacek of Homeless Voices for Justice and state Rep. Dick Farnsworth ride the No. 5 bus Tuesday as part of a protest.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Alfond and other Portland-area legislators, along with Mayor Michael Brennan, Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce and a number of social service professionals and clients gathered to protest the LePage administration’s recent award of a contract to ELC Management Inc.

The Portland-based firm was chosen over three other bidders and plans to build a new 80,000-square-foot building to house both DHHS and Labor Department offices. The building will be located in South Portland near Portland International Jetport, about four miles from the current DHHS location, which is on Marginal Way near downtown Portland. The current Labor Department office is on nearby Lancaster Street.

The protesters’ message, which was written on several signs, was simple: “Don’t go to SoPo.”

“Respectfully, we’re asking DHHS and the governor to reconsider,” said Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street Resource Center, one of several social service agencies in downtown Portland that work with clients who visit the DHHS offices regularly. “For us, this is all about accessibility. The point is to provide services, not make it harder.”

H. Sawin Millett Jr., commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, the agency that oversees all contract awards, defended the state’s process and its site selection. He said he would be happy to explain how the state arrived at its decision but, as far as he was concerned, the decision was final.

LePage, who had previously been silent on the matter, also gave a statement through his press secretary, Adrienne Bennett.

“It’s vitally important that State government spend your money wisely,” the governor said. “Consolidating the DHHS welfare office and the Department of Labor jobs office will save Maine’s hard working taxpayers 14 million dollars. Furthermore, the most significant benefit is creating a one stop location that serves our welfare needs and provides job opportunities for Mainers. Moving people from welfare to work is crucial to breaking Maine’s cycle of poverty.”

Alfond said the state’s focus on savings is a red herring because those savings come from consolidating the two offices, not by moving to South Portland. He and others said they think this is part of Gov. LePage’s plan to make it more difficult for poor people to get needed services.

Jim Devine, who lives within walking distance of the current DHHS offices on Marginal Way and gets SNAP benefits there, said moving those offices is likely to be a burden on many.

“It’s safe and convenient, especially for people who don’t have a vehicle,” he said.

Millett and others have pointed out that only about one-third of DHHS clients in Cumberland County live in Portland.

“We’re trying to be more of a regional office,” Millett said, adding that the new location is accessible by public transportation. “We don’t know how many walk, how many take taxis or how many ride the bus now. We don’t have that data. The issue of access, we think, is just as good in the new location.”

Critics, however, rode the bus from downtown Portland to the proposed site Tuesday to demonstrate how inconvenient the move might be. The trip by bus took 40 minutes one way, including more than 30 stops. The return trip was slightly shorter.

Judy Newell, who was recently homeless but now lives on Cumberland Avenue downtown, said it’s not just the location of DHHS that is important but its proximity to other services, like the library, shelters and soup kitchens.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Ashley Gorczyca of Homeless Voices for Justice, holding megaphone, leads a march up Elm Street to the bus stop where a group of protesters rode the No. 5 bus from Portland to the proposed site for DHHS offices in South Portland to highlight the length of the trip.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Maine Senate Ppresident Justin Alfond, center, addresses the media at the site of the proposed DHHS offices in South Portland. Alfond said he thinks the move is part of Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to make it more difficult for poor people to get needed services.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer


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