At this time last year, a prolonged encampment at Portland City Hall highlighted a fierce debate about the future of services for persons who were homeless. Now, a year later, issues related to housing availability and property taxes are at the forefront of the political discussions in Portland. Fortunately, the recently completed legislative session took significant steps to address both of these issues.

Using a combination of state and federal funds, the Legislature adopted a three-pronged strategy to address homelessness, affordable housing and mental health and substance use. First, $10 million in federal funds was dedicated to support the current operating costs of youth and adult emergency shelters and to directly assist public school students who are homeless. Another $50 million was earmarked to leverage existing resources and tax credits to create more affordable-housing opportunities in Portland and throughout the state. An additional $32 million for affordable housing was also made available through the Maine State Housing Authority.

Equally important, in the supplemental budget, millions of new dollars were allocated for mental health and substance use services. Last year, homeless advocates repeatedly cited the need for more mental health and substance use services. They said that persons too often were left to confront mental health and substance use issues without appropriate programs and support. Over the next year, the city, in partnership with state and local agencies, will be in a position to build adequate crisis intervention and treatment programs for those who live on the edges of our health care system.

In the bipartisan supplemental budget, the Legislature enacted several of the most far-reaching property tax relief initiatives in decades, all to the benefit of Portland taxpayers. After years of effort, the Legislature and Gov. Mills agreed to approve 55 percent in state funding for public education in Maine. This level of funding has been a longtime goal, but achieving it has proven elusive. For Portland, this meant that an additional $6.2 million was made available to the city, as of July 1. Furthermore, a substantial increase in school funding next year will help blunt property tax increases.

Along with school funding, $45 million was set aside for school renovation and repair. This effort, combined with last year’s increase in school construction debt service, should allow Portland schools to be renovated, repaired and upgraded without incurring any further local debt. Maine also passed a milestone by becoming one of the first states in the country to fund school nutrition programs, making all students eligible for meals regardless of income.

Municipal revenue sharing is one of the key programs that assists cities and towns in shaping their operating budgets. Previous governors and legislators had slashed funding for the program, forcing a greater reliance on local property taxes. Again, acting in concert with the governor, the Legislature approved dramatic increases in the revenue-sharing program, resulting in Portland’s receiving over $2 million more in state funds. Additional increases for revenue sharing and Portland are budgeted for next year.

The Legislature also enacted provisions for direct property-tax relief to renters and homeowners in the city. Both the Maine Property Tax Fairness Credit program and the Homestead Exemption received new funding, with over $22 million going to the property Tax Fairness Credit program for both expanded eligibility and larger tax relief checks.

Portland residents will also receive assistance from Augusta with the set-aside of $10 million to dredge Portland Harbor and $20 million to help municipalities implement strategies to mitigate the impact of sea-level rise.

Despite the progress made this session, a considerable amount of work remains to be done to ensure that state, county and municipal governments are able to work together, leverage resources and coordinate mutual ventures. Hopefully, these unprecedented investments will simultaneously lead to more stable property taxes and a renewed vision to confront homelessness.

Finally, these positive developments would not have been possible without the collective efforts of the entire Portland delegation. The city was well represented in Augusta by a hard-working and dedicated group of elected officials.

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