City Council finance committee endorses Portland municipal budget

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PORTLAND — The $236 million fiscal year 2017 budget not only met with City Council Finance Committee approval April 21, it was increased.

The budget was forwarded with a 3-0 recommendation to the full City Council for a May 2 first reading and public hearing. A second public hearing and final council vote are scheduled for May 16.

In forwarding the budget, Councilors Belinda Ray and Ed Suslovic and committee Chairman Nick Mavodones Jr. also endorsed a proposal to close the India Street Public Health Center, 103 India St., by Dec. 31.

The original plan to shift services at India Street to the Portland Community Health Center, based at 180 Park Ave., was amended, though. The needle exchange and HIV and sexually transmitted disease screening and treatment services will remain at India Street until no later June 30, 2017.

Jennings said delaying the shift of the three services was suggested in an April 21 meeting with India Street Program Director Dr. Caroline Teschke and Leslie Clark, CEO of the health center.

“(This) makes things more orderly and as smooth as possible for our patients,” Teschke said.

Keeping the services at India Street could cost more than $40,000, city Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said, but Jennings added they would look for other budget savings to offset the cost.

The Finance Committee approved leaving the services at India Street and added the expense to the operating budget. Also added was $120,000 in funding to pay for a third police resource officer at city high schools, retaining a part-time bicycle and pedestrian coordinator position, and increased funding for the Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement operated by the Milestone Foundation. Mavodones opposed adding the resource officer and coordinator.

The added $11,000 for HOME Team services allows Milestone staff to work seven days a week assisting chronically homeless people with mental health and substance use disorders. 

The total of more than $160,000 in funding above Jennings’ proposed budget would add 2 cents more per $1,000 of assessed value to the property tax rate, which was already anticipated to increase 47 cents if the education and municipal budgets are passed.

If passed without more revisions, the city tax rate for municipal, education and Cumberland County obligations would be $21.12 per $1,000 of assessed value. The tax rate is currently $20.60.

While councilors rediscovered the unanimity missing in 2015, when the Finance Committee of four deadlocked 2-2 on whether the budget should pass, the shift of public health services to PCRC remained a contentious issue in the hour-long public hearing.

“It would be a disastrous crisis for our community and a political end to your careers,” Anne Spencer, an Atlantic Street resident told councilors.

A volunteer at the needle exchange who is also studying the epidemic of opioid use and overdoses, Spencer said the services that would remain at India Street beyond Dec. 31 need to be offered in the same place. 

She and needle exchange volunteer Chris Buerkle said patients have a trust and reliance on the India Street Public Health Center they doubt could be replicated at PCHC.

Supporters of the India Street clinic also point to the range of treatment, including board-certified clinicians to treat HIV patients and an onsite disease intervention specialist at the STD clinic.

Last year, 211 HIV positive patients received care at India Street, while PCHC cared for 47 HIV positive patients.

Jennings proposed the shift of services to PCHC as a way to provide care for more patients based in part on the increases in MaineCare reimbursements the center receives as a federally qualified health center.

PCHC receives $181.50 per patient visit in reimbursements and has five locations in the city and South Portland. A memo to city councilors dated April 21 proposes  eventually locating the needle exchange at 63 Preble St. after a building renovation.

Sites for the HIV and STD care have not been determined.

Clark has also said PCHC will interview any India Street staff as it expands. Fourteen staff have received layoff notices effective Dec. 30.

“Our goal is to bring that expertise into the health center,” PCHC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Renee Fay-Leblanc said. “We are not expecting to provide additional services with current staffing.”

Teschke estimated about 1,000 people from throughout southern Maine use the needle exchange, and 140,000 needles are exchanged annually.

In all, the India Street Public Health Center served more than 1,600 patients last year, with more than 1,050 living in Portland. 

While pleased Teschke was given a chance to speak April 21, attorney Severin Beliveau chided councilors for not seeking input from Teschke or other staff sooner or more thoroughly.

“If this was a fire station, library or school, you’d have other people speaking,” he said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Dr. Caroline Teschke of the India Street Public Health Center addresses the City Council Finance Committee on April 21.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.