Portland city councilors fired back at Mayor Ethan Striming on Tuesday, a day after the mayor delivered a strong public rebuke of the city manager’s proposed cuts to public health services.

Councilors said they were surprised and disappointed by the speech, and took it as an attack on the council’s Finance Committee as well as City Manager Jon Jennings.

“If you’re trying to build support among the council, then the vehemence of that speech and pretty much the attack on the Finance Committee’s work is not the way to build support for another way to approach the budget,” City Councilor David Brenerman said. “His speech about the budget will probably have opposite of the intended effect, because the council in general was not pleased with his approach.”

Jennings, who’s City Hall office is just steps away from Strimling’s, also responded Tuesday in a written statement.

“While there is much I could say in response to Mayor Strimling’s comments on my budget proposal and the Finance Committee’s unanimously approved recommended budget, I believe it is much more important to focus on doing my job for the people of Portland and working with the City Council to move the city forward in a positive direction,” Jennings said. “My position requires me to make tough decisions on a daily basis that some may disagree with. That is called leadership.”

A city spokeswoman said Jennings did not want to elaborate on his statement.

Strimling on Tuesday stood by his remarks, which included asking for a detailed transition plan before closing a city-run health clinic and moving its health care services and patients to an independently run nonprofit clinic. He also questioned the impact of reducing public health staff who focus on preventing addiction or chronic illness, and whether the city should be putting “public works over preventive health” and “serving people or pavement.”

“If it struck a nerve, I’m OK with that. We have to have a very serious conversation about what we’re being asked to vote on,” Strimling said. “The questions I asked in that speech I have been asking for weeks and we have to have answers.”

NOT THE FIRST SIGN OF TENSION

Strimling, who said Tuesday that Jennings is a “very good city manager,” delivered his budget message to the full council on Monday, roughly three weeks after Jennings introduced his budget and four days after it was formally endorsed with few changes by the council’s Finance Committee.

The $236 million budget is designed to refocus municipal government on core services, while provoking a community conversation about which services to provide, including clinical health services. The City Council is scheduled to hold a full public hearing on May 2.

The budget dispute is the first public clash between Portland’s mayor and its city manager, both of whom are in their first year on the job.

There have been more subtle signs of tension between the full-time elected mayor, who has little power beyond being a leader on the council, and the professional manager, who is charged with running the city and proposing an annual budget.

Strimling and Jennings appeared to tussle at one point last winter over who had authority to call snow parking bans. Both men tried to take the blame for not calling a ban before a stronger-than-expected storm in December, and Jennings again made the point in an opinion column last month that failing to call that parking ban was his mistake.

Jennings also seemed irritated during an April 14 Finance Committee meeting when Strimling asked if it was “bad” that the city was providing clinical health services. “I can’t even begin to understand that question,” Jennings replied.

Although the budget proposed by Jennings would reorganize several city departments, the proposal to close the city-run India Street Public Health Center and transfer services and patients to an independently run nonprofit, Portland Community Health Center, has been the most controversial. The India Street clinic serves 1,114 patients who can access a constellation of services ranging from HIV-positive primary care, to HIV-sexually transmitted disease testing and a needle exchange program.

Proponents of the changes say patients would receive the same quality care, but that it would be more sustainable because the health center receives higher MaineCare and Medicare reimbursements than the city. Opponents, however, worry that patients will lose valuable relationships with their doctors and face increased barriers to receiving care, including having to go to more than one facility for services that had all been available at the India Street clinic.

The council’s Finance Committee recommended a slightly amended version of the manager’s original budget proposal that provides more time to complete the transition. Instead of closing the city-run clinic by the end of the year, only the HIV-positive services will be transitioned by then, with other programs, such as the needle exchange and the HIV-STD testing, being transferred by June 30, 2017.

COUNCILORS UNHAPPY WITH SPEECH

Responses Tuesday by city councilors suggest Strimling did not win a lot of support with his public criticism of the budget.

After Strimling’s address Monday, City Councilors Jill Duson and Jon Hinck left the council’s dais and walked to the podium typically reserved for public comment to defend Jennings and city staff.

On Tuesday, virtually every other city councilor, including those who supported Strimling’s bid to unseat former Mayor Michael Brennan, criticized the mayor’s remarks and supported Jennings and city staff.

“Last night was a very great disappointment,” said Councilor Edward Suslovic, a member of the Finance Committee who supported Strimling’s mayoral bid. “Last night was not a moment I would describe as collaborative leadership, which is unfortunate.”

“His framing of this as if the manager is doing something dastardly or untoward is completely beyond the pale and is not productive,” Councilor Justin Costa said. “This harms his relationship with the manager and the council.”

“I was a bit surprised by the comments and the way they were delivered,” said Councilor and Finance Chairman Nicholas Mavodones, who also supported Strimling’s mayoral bid. “The Finance Committee has spent a fair amount of time on the budget and particularly the India Street clinic and Portland Community Health Center, and we’ve asked a lot of questions and we got answers.”

Strimling said he wants more details on the public health changes and their potential impact. He would not say whether he would support maintaining these services and programs if it meant increasing property taxes, something he also campaigned against.

“My speech last night was about what my concerns are,” he said Tuesday. “We still have three more weeks. Everybody has questions they want answered. Those are the ones that I want answered.”

 


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