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Decision to move Labor, DHHS offices from Portland to South Portland continues to raise objections

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Decision to move Labor, DHHS offices from Portland to South Portland continues to raise objections

PORTLAND — More than a dozen state legislators, city officials and community leaders gathered Tuesday morning and called on Gov. Paul LePage to change the state's decision to move two social service offices from Bayside to South Portland.

In October, the state awarded a contract to consolidate the office of the Department of Health and Human Services, on Marginal Way, and the Lancaster Street offices of the Department of Labor. The winning bidder, ELC Management, submitted a proposal calling for construction of an 82,000-square-foot building near the Portland International Jetport.

But moving the offices four miles from their location on the peninsula makes no sense, according to state Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, state Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, Mayor Michael Brennan, and others at Tuesday's press conference at Avesta Housing on Cumberland Avenue.

"This is the wrong move for Maine," said Alfond, who noted that the proposed location would require Portland residents to travel 40 minutes on a Metro bus, making 36 stops along the way.

The Jetport-area proposal was one of four received by the state, and scored highest on a breakdown of location, building quality, management experience, and a combination of lease rates and additional costs for factors like parking.

Two proposals for Portland locations, one for the current Bayside buildings and the other for a site at 222 St. John St., scored lowest. Another proposal, for a building in South Portland's Brickhill neighborhood, was ranked second.

The state expects to save $14 million or more over the next 20 years on leases by moving to the Jetport-area building, according to Bureau of General Services spokeswoman Jennifer Smith.

But officials Tuesday said any savings would be outweighed by the burden the new location would place on DHHS and DOL clients, many of whom live near the current offices and do not have cars or perhaps bus fare.

"If DHHS moves, how will people get there? How will I get there?" asked Jim Devine, a Congress Street resident and advocate with Homeless Voices for Justice.

In Portland, more than 22,000 people walk to the DHHS Marginal Way office each month, out of about 40,000 Cumberland County residents who visit it, according to the department.

By making it difficult for the public to access state services, such as food stamps and MaineCare, the relocation violates the governor's goals of improving mental health care and emergency housing, Brennan said.

"There really isn't a perspective (on the relocation) from the governor's office that makes sense. I can't find a single metric," he said. "This directly contradicts the governor's priorities."

A representative of the governor's office was not immediately available to respond on Tuesday.

But last week, in response to criticism from Brennan and the owner of the Bayside buildings, Department of Labor spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said combining the offices is critical for policy and economic reasons.

"We thought it was a natural opportunity," she said, noting DHHS clients will be able to access Job Center resources like job listings and resume assistance in one place. She said the current locations on Lancaster Street are not as convenient as they could be for joint services.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.