Portland City Manager Danielle West said Friday that the $240,000 in employee bonuses the city recently awarded were meant to acknowledge how much more difficult some jobs have become with many city positions unfilled.

“We have a significant recruitment and retention problem, so we wanted to find a way to recognize the employees that have worked really hard in times of need where we have significant vacancies,” West said.

Portland City Manager Danielle West Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

She said she and the city’s finance director realized about a month ago that the city would have some money left over in the budget for the fiscal year ending June 30.

They gave out the bonuses to some employees around the same time the city approved a new budget with a 5.9% tax rate increase – and the way the bonuses were determined has drawn concern from at least one union representing municipal employees.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 93 wrote a letter to the city last week complaining that the bonuses were only given to select employees and should have been negotiated.

West acknowledged Friday that not all employees got bonuses, but she said an exact number would need to come from the city’s finance department.


The Press Herald has requested the number of employees receiving bonuses, their names and the amounts, but had not received the information from the city by the end of business Friday.

West said city officials will meet with the union next week to better understand its concerns. “Unions have a variety of employees and not everybody, like I said, unfortunately was recognized, so (the concern) could be due to that,” she said. “But I’m going to wait to hear more from them.”

Jim Durkin, legislative director for AFSCME Council 93, did not respond to a voicemail Friday seeking more information about the union’s concerns, which were described in a brief letter July 14 to the city’s labor relations manager.

AFSCME Council 93 represents state, county and municipal workers around New England, including Portland public works employees in AFSCME Local 481, for whom the letter was written. Jim Vance, president of the Local 481, did not respond to a message left at the city’s public works department Friday.

The city has struggled for months to keep up with increased costs from inflation, homelessness and an influx of asylum seekers.

West said it wouldn’t have been possible to roll over the surplus funds for use in the near future because of how the budget process works. At the end of each fiscal year, West said, the city has an audit process that typically takes several months. If the audit identifies surplus money – which she said happens infrequently – the funds roll over into the city’s fund balance.


That money can be used in future years, though there are restrictions and a certain amount (12.5% of expenditures) must always be maintained in the fund, West said.

She said the bonuses seemed like a way to “get the most bang for our buck.”

“Recruitment and retention is one of our No. 1 priorities as a leadership team,” she said.

The city has about 253 vacancies out of 1,400 positions.

Kate Dufour, spokesperson for the Maine Municipal Association, said giving out bonuses from a prior year’s surplus is not unusual.

“It is not uncommon for bonuses to be provided in recognition for over-and-above commitment to community,” Dufour said in an email. “During COVID, many first responders received bonus payments. And similar to what the Maine Legislature does when it runs the table, the local legislative body, which is the Council in Portland, has the discretion to appropriate undesignated fund balances.”


Dufour said it also did not seem unusual for city staff to make a decision about the bonuses without the council, saying there may be a policy that allows that to occur.

West said the decision to award the bonuses was made by her office with the help of the city’s finance department and guidance from department heads, in keeping with the budget authority they’re granted in the city charter, approved budget orders and the city’s personnel policies.

Some residents who were coming and going from City Hall on Friday, and who identified themselves as Portland taxpayers, said they didn’t know much about the bonuses but supported the city’s argument for them when it was explained to them.

“It doesn’t seem like a whole ton of money,” said Adam Cope, 47. “If people were impacted (by staff shortages), it doesn’t strike me as something that’s egregious or out of line necessarily. If it was a different number, maybe that would be the case.”

“Maybe if I thought about it I could find a better use for (the money),” said Sara Freshley, 30. “But I do think that all employees deserve to get paid more, especially when there are staff shortages.”

Most city councilors did not respond to phone messages and emails Friday asking what they thought of the bonuses. Though the bonuses didn’t require council approval, West said she had notified councilors.


City Councilor Regina Phillips said she had been unaware of them, however, and was planning to find out more from West about what the city’s rules are for moving money from one budget year to the next.

Phillips on Monday had questioned whether savings from vacancies could have been used to pay for the $175,000 West requested in this year’s budget for a reorganization of staff in the executive department.

“I’m really and truly concerned about all of this money, especially at such a high level,” Phillips said during Monday’s council meeting. “I’m not saying this isn’t needed, but maybe we need to look at some of the positions we don’t have filled and see if there’s something we can do without as opposed to adding more into an already strained budget.”

City Councilor Mark Dion said he thought the bonuses made good sense. “In a market where (employees) could decide to move on to somewhere else, I think it was prudent and a critical decision for the manager to try and validate the contributions these employees made during what were unprecedented work-environment times,” Dion said.

He said he had not personally heard from any unions about the bonuses and was interested to hear more about any concerns.

“That’s what I’m waiting to hear,” he said. “From whom in the union did the complaint come from? Is it a whole class of employees that feel aggrieved or is it a handful of individuals who feel they were left out?”

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