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State office decision leaves Portland out in the cold

News

State office decision leaves Portland out in the cold

PORTLAND — While opposition continues to the state's recent decision to move the offices of two social service agencies from Bayside to South Portland, a look at Maine cities reveals contrasts in the way other offices have been situated.

If the offices move to the new site, Portland will be the only major city in the state that lacks a DHHS or DOL facility within its borders.

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 and its Workers Compensation Board.

The winning bidder, ELC Management, submitted a proposal calling for construction of an 82,000-square-foot building near the Portland International Jetport, more than four miles – and a 40-minute bus ride – from the current offices.

Developer Tom Toye, who submitted a bid that would have put both departments on Lancaster Street, on Dec. 5 said he may sue the state over what he called a "flawed" bid selection process.

Two days earlier, more than a dozen state legislators, city officials and community leaders staged a press conference calling on Gov. Paul LePage to change the state's selection.

Location, location, location

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 Department of Administrative and Financial Services spokeswoman Jennifer Smith.

But state Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, called that argument for the move a misleading "red herring," since most of the savings will result from leasing less space, not from the South Portland address.

In addition, the new location will be less accessible to DHHS and DOL clients, many of whom live near the current offices, the opponents claim, and do not have cars or perhaps even bus fare.

Clients visit the DHHS location to obtain help including food stamps, emergency cash assistance and MaineCare benefits. DOL offices provide unemployment benefits, job training and other services.

After meeting Dec. 4 with Alfond and Mayor Michael Brennan, DAFS Commissioner H. Sawin Millett Jr. issued a statement that he "was disappointed to hear Mayor Brennan say that he is unwilling to work with the state to address the concerns he and the Senate President raised on accessibility. ... I remain committed to ensuring the accessibility issues are addressed for needy Mainers in Cumberland County before DHHS and DOL transition to their new location in 2015."

Location is also part of the reason for Toye's dispute.

At about $41.7 million, his proposal had the lowest price tag of the four bids submitted. But the proposal didn't score as well when it came to location, one of the evaluation criteria. Toye's bid received 6.5 points out of 20 awarded on that basis, while ELC's scored 18.

With its continued Bayside location, his bid should have scored much better than the ELC plan, according to Toye.

"The way (the state) arrived at those point values seems arbitrary," he said in an interview. Overall, his bid scored 87.5 points, compared to ELC's 109 points.

Proponents of the South Portland proposal counter that the Jetport location is attractive because of the ample parking it would provide. But it's not known how many clients arrive at DHHS offices by car, bus or foot, according to department spokesman John Martins. Attempts to obtain that information about DOL clients were unsuccessful.

A tale of three cities

In Lewiston and Bangor, Maine's second- and third-most populous cities, DHHS and DOL do not share space, unlike the state's plan for Portland, the most populous city.

In Lewiston, DHHS occupies an office on downtown Main Street, three blocks from Central Maine Medical Center. The Lewiston DOL office can be reached by bus in about 15 minutes from the DHHS.

In Bangor, DOL is on Oak Street, near the center of the city. But DHHS occupies an office at 396 Griffin Road, more than three miles from the downtown. Coincidentally, that office, like the office proposed in South Portland, is adjacent to an airport, Bangor International.

It's unclear how the decision was made to place the Bangor DHHS office. For the Portland contract, some preference was given to proposals that placed the consolidated offices in the city. But scoring bids for state real estate deals can be a complex, confusing process, as Toye's dispute demonstrates.

DHHS has leased space at the Bangor site for more than 15 years, according to Martins. The lease expires in May, but he said it is being renegotiated and there are no plans to consolidate or move the office.

Department statistics seem to show that the near-suburban Bangor location may be appropriate, given the proportion of city-dwelling clients who visit that DHHS office.

But can the same be said of the Jetport office?

The Bangor office provides DHHS benefits to residents of Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, a total of 7,900 square miles and the largest geographic area covered by any of the eight district offices.

In November the office served more than 53,400 DHHS beneficiaries, and of those, roughly 23 percent lived in Bangor.

In contrast, Portland's DHHS office last month served 60,800 beneficiaries, all residing in Cumberland County's 1,200 square miles. More than 36 percent lived in the city.

Lewiston's DHHS office served an even more urban population, covering just 500 square miles and with about 45 percent of its 38,300 beneficiaries living within Lewiston city limits.

Mario Moretto of The Bangor Daily News contributed to this report. William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.