PORTLAND — City councilors on Monday night approved the $236 million budget for fiscal year 2017.
But public health-care services again took center stage, hijacking discussions about finances.
Despite a recommendation in April by City Manager Jon Jennings to shift all city-funded India Street Public Health Center services to the Portland Community Health Center, the council voted to keep some core services on India Street.
The move came after Councilor Belinda Ray called for amendments to keep needle exchange and screening and treatment services for HIV, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases at the India Street center.
The screening services and the needle exchange will remain at 103 India St. “in perpetuity,” Ray said, with the city paying the annual lease after it runs out July 1, 2017. Ray said the lease for fiscal year 2017 will be $19,000.
All other services will be transitioned to the PCHC by the year’s end – including general health-care services – which also means more than 200 HIV-positive patients would have to seek services there.
Councilor John Hinck cast the dissenting vote in the 8-1 decision.
Amendments by Councilors Justin Costa and Jill Duson were also approved during discussions about India Street. Costa’s ensures that two patients from the ISHC and two patients from the PCHC, as well as a member of the public chosen by Jennings’ office, are involved in planning the transition of services. Duson’s amendment called for the city manager to provide briefings about the transition to the Health and Human Services Committee every two months.
Mayor Ethan Strimling, who earlier in the year had harsh words for the budget process, praised Ray’s amendments. He said like all budgets, this one included tough choices, and while he didn’t get everything he wanted in it, he had “to bend.”
“Now is the time for us to unite so we can implement this budget in the best way possible for everyone in this city,” Strimling said.
Like previous meetings, there was the outpouring of support for the India Street services. Thirty-five people spoke during public comment, the majority of whom urged councilors not to move services from India Street.
State Rep. Diane Russell, a Democrat running in Senate District 27, said she had a “hard reaction” when the news broke of the potential shift in services. She said when she was younger, India Street was the place her friends without health care could go.
“(It’s been a) deep heart center for this community for a very long time; I would hate to see it get disrupted and moved,” Russell said. “Now is not the time to move the needle exchange and disrupt the health care.”
But despite councilors ultimately voting to keep some services at India Street, there was an air of contention in Council Chambers. Some councilors criticized what they perceived as negative campaigning and personal attacks, whether through social media or spread otherwise.
Councilor David Brenerman said he had read “great amounts of misinformation” about what the council was trying to accomplish and said, “There’s no room in our political discourse for personal attacks” on anyone.
“People certainly have a right to say what they want; I respect that,” Brenerman. “I just wish in the future when we take up issues we do that without accusations.”
In response to the vote, chants of “Shame on you” and “Shame” began from members of the audience, but were gavelled down by Strimling.
At the heart of the issue was the initial plan to close the India Street center by Dec. 31 of this year. The idea was that PCHC would receive more in federal subsidies for patient care than the city-operated India Street.
Lost in the shuffle was the budget itself, which paled in comparison to the length of discussion about the clinics.
The budget represents a 2.3 percent overall increase from the current budget, according to Finance Director Brendan O’Connell. The combined school, municipal and city share for Cumberland County operations would increase the city tax rate to $21.10 per $1,000 of assessed value from the current $20.60 tax rate.
The $103.6 million school portion of the budget was approved by the council with little discussion at its May 3 meeting, and was overwhelmingly approved by voters in a May 10 referendum.
With an 8-1 vote Monday night, Portland City Councilors passed the 2017 budget, which will shift some services from the India Street Health Clinic to the Portland Community Health Clinic. However, amendments to the budget called for a needle exchange program and screenings to remain at India Street in perpetuity.