Investing in child care, affordable housing, beds for people with mental health issues, a senior center, public toilets and assisting Portland harbor pilots with lost revenue all were among the suggested uses for nearly $40 million in federal funding the city has received to recover from a pandemic that continues to rage.

The suggestions, which also included investing in tree plantings and water and sewer infrastructure, came during an online community forum hosted Monday by the city of Portland, which is one of six entitlement communities in the state to receive a direct allocation of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The community forum will help inform a decision by the City Council this fall on funding priorities for about $15 million of that funding. Staff plans to present its own ideas for using federal funding in the coming weeks, City Manager Jon Jennings said. 

Portland is slated to receive more than $46 million in federal funding over the next year, but it has already allocated $8.5 million to cover lost revenue in the current budget. The city received its first installment of $23.1 million in May and expects to receive a similar installment next year year. Counties and the state also are receiving funding.

City Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said Tuesday it’s difficult to assess the total amount in funding requests the city has received through a variety of surveys of residents, businesses and public health agencies because some proposals did not include any specific funding requests. He said that the city will continue to collect input.

“We’re going to be having several separate council approvals for ARPA funding,” O’Connell said Monday. “We’ll be periodically examining the requests that come in over the next year.”

The funding must be obligated by the end of 2024 and must be spent by the end of 2026.

PILOTS MAKE SPECIFIC REQUEST

At Monday’s forum, the Portland Pilots Inc., whose vessels accompany large ships that call to port, put forward perhaps the most specific request. They are seeking $900,000 in funding to help make up for revenue lost when cruise ship traffic was canceled. They are also seeking $350,000 from the county and $450,000 from the city of South Portland.

Portland Pilots Inc. is a private company, but its rates are set by the Portland Harbor Commission and paid by the owners of large vessels that call to port. Prior to the pandemic, commissioners approved a 50 percent increase in the minimum to help address financial and workforce constraints caused by a loss of oil tanker traffic. Those new rates took effect in 2020 – just as the cruise ship industry was shut down.

Twain Braden, an attorney representing the pilots, said state and federal law requires a trained harbor pilot be onboard large vessels when they call to port, including oil tankers, cargo ships and cruise ships.

Cruise ship revenue accounts for 60 percent of the pilots’ budget and those revenues disappeared in 2020 and 2021, resulting in a losses of over $2 million, the group said in a letter to councilors. If cruise ship traffic doesn’t resume in 2022, the group could lose another $1.5 million.

According to the letter, the company trimmed costs, including salary cuts for company principals, putting loans for vessels in forbearance and taking out lines of credit. And they sought federal Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, funding, as well as funding from the Greater Portland Council of Governments, but that is not sustainable.

Even without cruise ships, pilots are needed to ensure cargo ships can safely dock and deliver products.

“Even though the pandemic stopped a lot in our lives, commercial ship traffic and pilotage didn’t stop,” Braden said. “All their expenses remained despite the cruise ship traffic.”

CHILD CARE A PRIORITY FOR MANY

Several community groups advocated for greater investment in child care.

Portland ConnectED, a community group that focuses on education, has partnered with the Portland Regional Chamber, United Way of Greater Portland and the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children to provide a blueprint for investing in child care, which has been identified as a hurdle for parents looking to re-enter the workplace.

The group did not request a specific level of funding, but recommended allocating funds to area Head Start programs to expand partnerships with community-based providers; building on the city’s childcare voucher collective, which uses federal Community Development Block Grants; providing grants for new child care programs or for expanding existing ones; and launching a business incubator for aspiring child care providers.

Matt Dubel, the executive director of Portland ConnectEd, which has an early childhood education initiative called Starting Strong, said a recent survey by the chamber of commerce revealed that 61 percent of employers said workers had trouble finding childcare and 91 percent believed investing in child care should be a community priority. He said the survey showed “an urgent need,” with parents waiting months or a year on a number of waitlists to secure child care.

“The pandemic has underscored the reality that all sectors of the economy rely on child care and parents rely on child care to get to work,” Dubel said. “At a time when the economy needs every worker we can get, child care is foundational to our economic recovery.”

Youth and Family Outreach, a nonprofit child care provider in Bayside, also requested funding to help with its expansion on Cumberland Avenue, from 58 kids to 107 kids. The center would be part of an affordable housing project by the Portland Housing Authority.

Another suggested use of federal funding was investing in resources for people with mental health issues.

PITCHING AID FOR MENTAL HEALTH

Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck said he has been working since 2018 with defense attorneys, a judge, Portland police and personnel at the county jail to better address the needs of people experiencing a mental health crisis. He said the only places available for people in crisis are jails and hospital emergency departments, which are expensive and already strained.

“It would be the humane practice for those individuals who are having mental health issues as well as a relief to the criminal justice system, which is overburdened already and also is not the right place for these people who have such big needs,” Sahrbeck said.

The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, outlined five suggestions, including endorsing requests from the Portland Pilots, child care advocates and Portland Downtown for more public toilets.

The chamber also recommended using some of the funding for “construction gap financing” for affordable housing projects, rather than relying solely on the city’s housing trust fund. The chamber also recommended funding a shuttle service to reduce traffic and congestion on Commercial Street and elsewhere in the Old Port.

“As a city, we are obviously facing many pressures on the precious tax dollars available for public expenditures,” the chamber’s advocacy director, Eamonn Dundon said in a letter to councilors. “Beyond the items we have supported above, we ask that as you consider spending the funds you consider areas where qualified expenses can be made that will take pressure off our municipal budgets in the years ahead so that we can adequately spend on ineligible activities.”


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