The Portland City Council will hold a public hearing Monday before voting on a proposed municipal budget that could slightly reduce the tax rate and eliminate the equivalent of 65 jobs.

However, at least one city councilor has signaled her intent to offer several amendments that would add to the city’s bottom line.

Spending on police and health and human services are expected to get the most discussion.

Activist groups, including Black Lives Matter Portland and organizers of a recent two-week-long homeless encampment, have echoed nationwide demands that cities defund the police and make greater investments in programs to treat substance use disorder and mental health issues.

“We have had a lot of interest in our health and human services budget and police department budgets,” Finance Director Brendan O’Connell told councilors Monday. “That’s been by far our most talked-about departments.”

As in cities across the country, Portland’s budget was completely upended by the extraordinary measures implemented to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, including stay-at-home orders, quarantine rules for out-of-state tourists, the closure of municipal offices and restrictions on the number of people who can gather indoors and outdoors.

City Manager Jon Jennings was prepared to present a modest 1.8 percent tax increase to councilors without layoffs in March before the virus took hold. But Jennings redrafted the spending plan to account for an estimated loss of about $12 million in non-property tax revenue, with the bulk of the losses coming in parking revenue ($3.2 million), parks and recreation programming ($2.5 million) and cruise ship fees ($2 million).

To close the gap, Jennings proposed the elimination of 65 full-time equivalent positions, including about 37 layoffs, mostly in parks and recreation. Much of that department’s programming and the revenue it generates has been canceled. And six of the city’s eight unions will not receive a cost-of-living allowance this year.

It’s a very challenging budget that unfortunately recommends eliminating a number of positions and employees who have worked very hard for the city of Portland,” said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who leads the Finance Committee. 

Jennings’ $202 million municipal budget proposal is $4.2 million lower than the current budget and would have reduced the tax rate by a penny. And that’s despite a 4 percent increase in county taxes.

The Finance Committee last week made some minor adjustments that reduced the rate by another penny by increasing parking meter rates by 25 cents an hour, a move expected to generate an additional $250,000. The committee also removed $12,000 from its own budget: $8,000 for travel and $4,000 for food.

The committee also recommended additional spending. Those additions consisted of $75,000 for legal services for the Charter Commission, $75,000 for contractual services for the mayor’s racial equity committee and an independent investigation into the police response to protests in June that involved pepper spray and more than two dozen arrests. The committee also added $7,800 to provide stipends to the 13 members serving on the equity committee.

Portland City Councilor Belinda Ray Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

City Councilor Belinda Ray said she plans to offer a series of three amendments that were rejected by the Finance Committee: restoring a sustainability associate ($30,850) and a groundskeeper ($57,055) and funding the heritage tree ordinance ($41,000).

Ray said she also plans to propose two additional amendments that the committee determined should be taken up by the full council: adding $38,000 for a special election for charter commission members and $56,580 for additional portable toilets. Additional portable toilets was also a demand of the homeless encampment over the summer. And Ray said her proposal would allow the city to rent eight toilets, including two that are handicapped-accessible. The toilets would be monitored by a staff member, and cleaned six times a week by the rental company.

O’Connell, meanwhile, provided additional information about police and health and human services spending.

A representative of BLM Portland said the group did not plan on organizing for the public hearing and referred to a budget analysis released in advance of the Finance Committee meeting. During that meeting, several residents echoed the group’s call to reduce the police budget and put more money toward health and human services.

An analysis by the Press Herald highlighted the disparity in police and public health spending.

O’Connell said comparing Portland’s police budget to other municipalities is difficult, because, unlike other communities, the department employs liaisons for substance use disorders and people experiencing a mental health crisis.

Also, Portland’s police budget includes the costs of a regional fire and police dispatch center. An increasing share of those operational costs are reflected in the Portland police budget, even though some of those costs are reimbursed by communities, such as South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, he said.

“As South Portland dispatchers retire, we hire them under the City of Portland budget and receive a reimbursement, so our (full-time-equivalent employees) and expenditures in the Police Department budget are somewhat overstated.”

O’Connell said that budget has increased by about 30 percent over the last 11 years, which is in line with the city budget overall. Meanwhile, spending on social services, including General Assistance and homeless shelters, is up 70 percent primarily because of state-level policy changes, he said.

The city has launched a public relations push to highlight the extent of its public health and social services programming over the last year.

In public health, the city’s chronic disease prevention program has reached 5,409 public school students and 1,008 children in early childhood education centers through its “Let’s Go!” initiative. It has also distributed 13,171 doses of the overdose antidote naloxone to 706 agencies and individuals. The city’s needle exchange program has exchanged 4,259 needles to 843 clients, and made 465 referrals for treatment and recovery, 280 for housing, 185 for primary care and 250 for sexually transmitted disease testing, among others. Other programming included minority health outreach and the India Street Public Health Clinic.

In 2019, the city-run Oxford Street Shelter served 1,437 individuals for a total of 59,202 bed nights and the city-run family shelter served 794 individuals for 47,057 bed nights. That’s far more than any other emergency shelter in Maine, with the Hope House in Bangor being the second-busiest shelter, serving 455 clients for a total of 23,347 bed nights.

“The numbers from social services and the number of bed nights that we have had and the total number of guests we’ve had at the shelter is really staggering when you take a look at it,” O’Connell said.

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