As I watched the Portland City Council budget workshop on Monday, I felt a growing sense of dread for the health and vitality of our city.

What I found most shocking was the seeming consensus among city councilors that the best path forward includes to-be-determined cuts to city services. This decision could lead us into a death spiral where an anemic city government is unable to deliver services, leading to even more staffing challenges and additional costs for residents.

The biggest difficulties relate to the removal or expiry of state and federal funding: $4.75 million in reduced ARPA revenue, $1.6 million in increased Cumberland County taxes, $1.7 million in reduced state revenue sharing, and $7.4 million in discontinued state funding to offset General Assistance spending. This alone adds up to a nearly $15.5 million shortfall. In addition, the city is facing increased costs in the form of contracted raises to city staff, increased operating costs for the new Homeless Services Center relative to the Oxford Street Shelter and costs associated with new charter amendments and citizen’s initiatives.

Let’s zoom in on General Assistance funding. State law mandates that municipalities operate General Assistance programs, which support those who do not have the income or resources to meet their own basic needs. The state reimburses municipalities for only 70% of the cost of these programs. As Maine’s largest city, Portland ends up shouldering a disproportionate share of the cost of these services while providing a region-wide benefit.

Maine and Portland should continue to provide services to the most needy – it’s the right thing to do – but the state should fully reimburse municipalities instead of creating a partially funded mandate. The state’s mandate and our cherished freedom of movement in the United States leaves Portland unable to control the cost of the General Assistance budget. City leadership and our state legislators must continue their advocacy at the state level for changes to the General Assistance formula.

Other challenges are factors outside of Portland’s control. Portland does not write state law or control inflation. Faced with this, councilors were asked what property tax levy they would support to help craft the city manager’s budget proposal, particularly if no additional state funding materializes.


To my dismay, the council seemed to form a consensus around a 5% increased levy, although some councilors floated an upper end as high as 7%. With inflation at 7.1%, this increase would be an overall reduction in property tax revenues, in real (inflation-adjusted) terms even before accounting for the loss of state and federal revenues. Despite the obvious reality that this would require substantial budget cuts, few councilors identified which departments they thought should receive less money.

Let me be clear: I do not want higher taxes for the sake of higher taxes. What I want is for our city leaders to show leadership and explain the real challenges facing the city to the public, instead of myopically slashing budgets in the middle of a staffing crisis at City Hall. Portland should deliver quality essential services which grow the total wealth of the city and residents while ensuring that growth benefits everyone. This mission is impossible with a policy of austerity and a failure to invest in our municipal workforce.

With the budget challenges outlined above, a “rolled forward” budget from the prior year would require a 14.8% increase in the city property tax levy if no other revenue is raised. The city should explore additional, non-property tax revenue sources to offset some of this. Raising parking meter rates is a good first step to generating revenue while also encouraging a more sustainable, car-free lifestyle. We should also ensure that eligible residents know about and apply for the property tax stabilization program, which freezes seniors’ tax bills at no cost to the city.

It is imperative that we explore other options to reduce the tax burden on those least able to pay. But at the end of the day, even if it is politically unpopular, city leaders must not approve any budget with less funding than the rolled-forward budget. To do so would be selling out the long-term success of our city for a short-term political win.

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