Passage of $71M school bond is Portland mayor's 'No. 1 priority'

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PORTLAND — The breadth of Mayor Ethan Strimling’s vision for the city was displayed Monday in his 42-minute State of the City address at City Hall.

“I promise I won’t keep you three hours, but it won’t be for five minutes either,” Strimling said at the outset of a speech that was both conciliatory and resolute.

Strimling urged passage of a $70.6 million bond to renovate and upgrade four city elementary schools, sending a clear message to the ad hoc committee he established to study the borrowing proposal the School Board submitted to city councilors last summer. The committee has considered sending scaled-down packages to city voters.

“The bond must fully meet the needs of all four schools: Reiche, Lyseth, Longfellow and Presumpscot. No one gets left behind,” he said.

Following his speech, Strimling said moving the full bond forward is his “No. 1 priority.”

The speech, an annual charter requirement for the elected mayor, was the second time Strimling has outlined the visions he wants to become policy.

“In my first year, one of the things I did not do as well was lay out my vision. I’m going to be a bit more proactive,” the mayor said last month.

On Monday, he said he was pleased.

“I feel good,” Strimling said. “I’ve been working on this for a month. I met with a lot of groups. From those conversations, this speech arose.”

His remarks were in keeping with his stated goal to be a leader who hears all segments of the population. Strimling also pledged to collaborate with City Manager Jon Jennings and councilors, with whom he has clashed, on moving the city forward.

Strimling spoke in front of a crowd that packed the chambers and balcony. An overflow crowd began watching the speech on TV in Room 209, but most shifted to the hallway outside council chambers as Strimling continued.

The mayor said he sees the need for a “gender neutral bathroom” in City Hall, an apprenticeship program involving local students and businesses, pre-K programs throughout the city’s schools, and requiring business to provide paid sick days for employees.

Within this framework, Strimling also called for keeping the overall city property tax rate from increasing more than 2.5 percent above the current $21.11 per $1,000 of assessed value.

While thanking Jennings for streamlining city services and reducing the average wait times for “permitting for smaller projects” from 17 to seven days, Strimling said there is more to accomplish.

“I spoke to a developer last week who told me that some of his peers are still starting construction prior to getting a permit, because there is too much financial loss in the wait,” Strimling said.

The mayor said he would like city tax increment finance policies to have local hiring and prevailing wage requirements for contractors, and he would like to double the required amount of affordable housing set aside in the inclusionary zoning ordinance from 10 percent to 20 percent.

Strimling said the Housing Committee he established in December 2015, led by Councilor Jill Duson, made progress in addressing housing insecurity issues, but urged the panel to reconsider a proposal by Councilor Spencer Thibodeau that would require landlords to help relocate tenants who are evicted without cause.

In addressing public health, Strimling said he will fight to make sure the free clinic, needle exchange, and HIV and sexually transmitted disease screening services provided at the India Street Public Health Center remain in place and adequately staffed.

Strimling also called on councilors to enact a “good Samaritan” law to protect people who report drug overdoses from being prosecuted. 

“While our police do not make it a priority to arrest in these cases, solidifying the policy in ordinance will set a very public example that picking up the phone and calling 911 is about saving a life, not incarceration,” he said.

Strimling also promised to work with Councilor Belinda Ray, now chairwoman of the Health & Human Services Committee, on expanding “housing first” solutions for the city’s homeless population. While saying he would oppose any effort to cap services or create residency requirements, Strimling said he will also approach communities around Portland to get them to contribute funds to a regional solution.

“We all have a vested interest in helping our most vulnerable residents get that first foot on the rung of the ladder to stability,” Strimling said.

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

Portland City Councilors Belinda Ray and Justin Costa listen as Mayor Ethan Strimling delivers his annual State of the City address Jan. 9 at Portland City Hall.

Mayor Ethan Strimling delivers his State of the City address Jan 9 in Portland City Hall.

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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.