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PORTLAND — The $103.6 million school budget drew no public comment at Monday night’s City Council meeting before it was sent to a May 10 referendum.
A new three-year lease with Bay Ferries Ltd. to restore ferry service to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, was approved in a flash, also without public comment.
But the proposed shift of public health services from the India Street Public Health Center to offices operated by the Portland Community Health Center remained a flashpoint during a nearly three-hour public hearing.
“The work that is done at India Street is not easily interchangeable with work at other clinics,” city resident Joey Brunelle told councilors, four days after he organized a press conference outside City Hall to oppose the move.
The hearing followed the first reading of the $236 million municipal budget that includes City Manager Jon Jennings’ plan to close the 103 India St. facility by Dec. 30.
Jennings proposed the shift April 4, saying it was a way to provide better care for city residents because the PCHC receives more in federal subsidies for patient care.
On April 21, the City Council Finance Committee amended Jennings’ budget to keep a needle exchange and screening for HIV, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases at India Street no later than June 30, 2017.
Jennings suggested the extension after meeting with the India Street program director, Dr. Caroline Teschke, and Leslie Clark, chief executive of the PCHC.
According to council budget documents, Clark has suggested shifting the needle exchange to the PCHC office at 63 Preble St., where homeless patients now receive care. The needle exchange would be part of an expansion of the offices.
A second public hearing on the budget will beheld May 16, preceding a City Council vote. The combined school, municipal and city share for Cumberland County operations would boost the city tax rate to $21.12 per $1,000 of assessed value from the current $20.60 tax rate.
Few in the lineup of nearly 60 speakers, however, were concerned about property taxes. Most pleaded with councilors to keep India Street entirely open for at least another year. The same message was made at the April 28 press conference and a demonstration Sunday.
Whether it was because of worries over the transition plan and its details, fears anonymity would not be protected at the needle exchange, or unhappiness of Bayside residents already feeling overburdened by the level of social services clustered in their neighborhood, councilors were asked to put the brakes on the proposed move.
David Jon Timm, a patient of the India Street service for 12 years, said his HIV is undetectable now because of specialists at India Street.
“I’m not a number, I’m not a billable hour,” he said. “My relationship with my doctor is why I am standing here today.”
Other patients also praised the care at India Street.
“I can go there, they know how to talk to trans people. They are so kind and respectful of my mental illness and my gender,” Drew Christopher Joy of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center said.
The PHCH, which has five offices and is based at 180 Park St., also had its defenders.
“Not a day passed when I was not in awe of the work being done under our roof,” PCHC board member Amy Kustra-Barksdale said.
Lawrence Leonard, an orthopedist who volunteers at PCHC and has also volunteered at India Street, said he was impressed by what he saw at 63 Preble St.
“The medical care the (PCHC) is delivering to their patients now is absolutely superb,” he said.
On Tuesday, city Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said almost $453,000 in property tax revenue would be needed to fund India Street operations for the coming fiscal year. Without other budget savings, the funding would increase the city tax rate to $21.17.
Keeping the HIV, STD services and needle exchange open already required an additional $40,000 in funding.
The money would also fund installation of electronic medical records technology at India Street, which will soon be required.
India Street staff have received layoff notices effective Dec. 30, and Clark has said those laid off would be interviewed for new jobs.
Councilors unanimously approved a two-year lease with an option for a third with Bay Ferries Ltd. for use of the Ocean Gateway Terminal for high-speed ferry service from June 15 through Sept. 30.
The service will be seven days per week, with The Cat ferry berthing between 1:30-3 p.m. daily. City Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said he anticipates at least $100,000 in revenue from the lease, which also includes “blackout dates” of Aug. 28, and Sept. 12, 21, 24, 25, and 30, when the ferry will not be allowed to berth because of cruise ship visits.
In 2017, there will be blackout dates on Sept. 12, 20, and 26, and Oct. 1, 6, and 9.
David Jon Timm speaks April 28 at a Portland City Hall press conference in support of keeping the India Street Public Health Clinic open. He said his care for HIV and AIDS at the clinic has saved his life.