The Portland City Council restored funding for social services Monday night, but upheld a staff recommendation to decommission Engine 1 on Munjoy Hill.

After a two-hour public hearing featuring strong support for social services, the council voted unanimously to restore $45,000 for a second overflow for its overnight emergency shelter and $50,000 for the Portland Community Support Fund, which provides financial aid to asylum seekers who do not qualify for state General Assistance.

Councilors also added $20,000 for Cultivating Community, a nonprofit that oversees the community gardens. And they added nearly $52,000 to hire another maintenance worker to help transition the city’s five athletic fields to organic standards, as required by the city’s pesticide ordinance.

The council, however, voted 6-3 against an amendment by Mayor Ethan Strimling to add nine firefighters to the budget at a cost of $400,000, sealing the fate of  Engine 1 because the fire truck’s decommissioning was included in the budget submitted by City Manager Jon Jennings.

Fire Chief Keith Gautreau said the additional firefighters would not necessarily save Engine 1. And other councilors expressed confidence in the judgment of the chief, who has 24 years of experience in the department.

“The bottom line is I trust this chief,” Councilor Jill Duson said. “I expect this chief to manage this department. I think he’s come to us with a solid plan.”

Strimling, however, argued that adding nine firefighters would ultimately pay for themselves through reduced overtime, even if Engine 1 were decommissioned.

“I do feel like the people of this city are willing to support this,” Striming said.

The Munjoy Hill station will remain open with an ambulance and a fire truck and five personnel per shift, instead of eight, Gautreau said.

The council meeting was preceded by a “Rally for a Moral City Budget” on City Hall steps. Over 100 people – many wearing black as a sign of solidarity with those affected by the cuts – stood on City Hall steps holding signs saying “cuts cost lives,” “shelter saves lives” and “asylum-seekers welcome.”

Lynne Zimmerman creates a sign on the steps of Portland City Hall on Monday. Zimmerman was among those who turned out at a rally to protest various cuts to the city budget. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

The rally was organized by a group calling itself the Portland Inclusivity Coalition, which includes Preble Street, Homeless Voices for Justice, Southern Maine Workers Center, the Portland Overdose Prevention Site, Portland Outright and the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition.

“We’re here today to say: Cuts cost lives,” said Preble Street’s Advocacy Director Heather Zimmerman, who led the crowd in a chant.

Portland resident Tae Chong suggested that people are frustrated that social services are being cut at a time when the city is booming economically.

“The city has no problem giving tax breaks and all kinds of benefits to people who build buildings, but (it’s) going to take everything away from people who need support and that’s wrong,” Chong said.

The group organized the rally in response to a proposal to begin winding down the Portland Community Support Fund, which provides financial aid to asylum-seeking immigrants who do not qualify for state General Assistance, and to effectively cap the number of homeless people in emergency shelters to 229 people.

Activists brought those arguments into City Hall, delivering them throughout the hearing.

The council’s Finance Committee restored funding – $50,000 for the Community Support Fund and $45,000 for the third overflow shelter for adults – for those programs, before forwarding the budget to the full council.

But activists aimed to keep pressure on councilors until the final vote and they expanded their cause to saving Engine 1 and restoring a $450,000 reduction in the school’s budget increase.

A few residents spoke in support of the school budget, urging the council not to move forward with the $450,000 reduction recommended by the council’s Finance Committee. But the cut was approved unanimously by the council.

City Councilor Kim Cook voted against the overall school budget. Cook noted that the budget approved was a 6.2 percent spending increase. And in the last two years combined, school spending has increased by nearly 11 percent, she said.

Cook said she supports the Portland Promise, the school’s strategic plan. But she said that Portland taxpayers can’t fund the investments in it alone and that more state help is needed.

I just don’t see it’s sustainable,” Cook said. 

Councilors then took up debate on the rest of the budget, including the fate of Engine 1 on Munjoy Hill.

Gautreau proposed decommissioning Engine 1 – one of two fire engines on Munjoy Hill – and reducing the number of on-duty firefighters from 46 to 43. None of the 12 firefighters on the engine would be laid off. Gautreau recommended using nine of the firefighters to reduce overtime costs, projected to be $1.6 million this year, and the remaining three positions would be reassigned as administrative support to ensure the city is receiving its EMS reimbursements.

City officials estimate that the city could save between $500,000 to $600,000 annual with the realignment.

Prior to the budget increase to implement the city’s pesticides ordinance, the combined city and school budget would boost property taxes by 4 percent, City Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said previously. That would increase the mil rate to $23.37 per $1,000 of valuation, adding about $214 to the tax bill of a home valued at $240,000.