A Portland City Council committee decided Thursday not to endorse the acting city manager’s 2015-16 budget, largely over a disagreement over a proposal for a new housing safety office.

The Finance Committee forwarded acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian’s $221 million municipal budget to the full council with a 2-2 vote after more than an hour of public testimony, mostly about housing safety and the city’s General Assistance program. The proposal would eliminate 24 positions, including 15 layoffs, in an effort to close a projected $10 million budget shortfall.

Meanwhile, the city’s finance director said the city will need to use upwards of $7 million in surplus funds to balance the current budget because of the lack of state General Assistance reimbursements and cost overruns associated with winter operations.

After the meeting, Mayor Michael Brennan said the vote wasn’t a surprise, given concerns several councilors have expressed about increasing taxes.

“I still think there will be enough votes on the council to pass it,” Brennan said. “It’s unfortunate it wasn’t a unanimous vote or a 3-1 vote.”

Despite those concerns, councilors voted unanimously to reinstate a school-based oral health program, primarily by revising projected revenues and expenses.


A new housing safety office was proposed by a task force that looked at housing safety after six young people were killed in a house fire in November. Housing safety re-emerged last week, after a 54-year-old man fell to his death when a railing on a second-story deck gave way.

The new office would include three new inspectors, a program manager who would prioritize inspections based on complaints and other factors, and a fire safety officer. It would be overseen by a housing safety officer who would coordinate housing issues across all city departments and report to the city manager.

The new positions would be funded by landlords, who would be required to pay a $35 fee to register each rental unit with the city. The new inspectors would be cross-trained in building and fire codes, and focus on housing that’s not currently being inspected – primarily single- and two-family rental units.

Councilors Edward Suslovic and Jon Hinck opposed creating positions and instead wanted the Fire Department free up resources to conduct the inspections. “I remain unconvinced the best approach is to create another separate office,” Suslovic said.

The combined city and school budget would increase the property tax burden by $5 million, leading to a 2.9 percent tax rate increase. The rate would increase from $20 per $1,000 valuation to $20.58.

Hinck said the burden should be reduced by $2 million. “I think we need to work harder to avoid a property tax increase,” he said.

Both supported the proposal to charge landlords to register their rental units – an idea that concerned some landlords.

“I’m just concerned the manager is plugging in a (budgetary) need that’s going to come from the landlords,” said Carleton Winslow.

Councilors Jill Duson and Nicholas Mavodones supported the new housing safety office.

Duson questioned the wisdom of adding responsibilities to existing staff members while collecting a new fee from landlords.

“If it’s a new fee, it’s for a new service,” Duson said. “If there is no new service, what are we collecting the fee for? We can’t just willy-nilly try to raise revenue.”


The proposed budget plans for a scenario in which the LePage administration wins its efforts to prohibit General Assistance to some types of immigrants, primarily asylum seekers. General Assistance is a state-mandated safety net program that is partially funded by the state and city. LePage is trying on several fronts to eliminate aid to “undocumented” immigrants. His budget contains a proposal to change state statute, while an administrative rule change is being challenged in court by Portland, Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association.

Several people urged the council to continue providing General Assistance even though the state is no longer reimbursing the city for those costs.

“I want to urge you to continue to hold the line until this issue is resolved at the state level,” said the Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, pastor of the Hope Gateway Church, which helps asylum seekers. “They’re here and it’s our moral responsibility to take care of them with food, shelter and safety.”

The city has continued to provide aid to the affected group, despite the fact that they are no longer receiving state aid. That will likely cost local taxpayers $4.6 million by the time the current fiscal year ends on June 30, according to Brendan O’Connell. The state is no longer reimbursing the city for the $2 million in operating costs of its shelters, O’Connell said.

To continue that practice, it would cost roughly $5.7 million.

While immigrant advocates argued that cutting off assistance sent the wrong message to Augusta, Councilor Duson argued that the opposite was true – that be continuing to provide aid would signal the city had the means to provide assistance without the state’s help.

“We can’t,” she said. “To do that sends the wrong signal and creates a municipally-funded GA program by fiat.”

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

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