Portland City Council approves homeless shelter task force

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PORTLAND — The future of city homeless shelters will be examined and evaluated by a new task force created by a unanimous vote of city councilors Monday.

Councilors also approved easements to allow installation of natural gas lines to the Portland Technology Park off Rand Road near the Maine Turnpike, but postponed signing a two-part agreement on reconstructing Forest Avenue in Woodford’s Corner.

“Is there a better way to run our shelter, is there a more efficient way to run our shelter?” Councilor Ed Suslovic asked as he supported the creation of the task force.

Suslovic is chairman of the council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, which forwarded the task force recommendation at its March 10 meeting.

The task force idea was first discussed by the committee in January, and the intent is to conduct a feasibility study on consolidating shelter services with the goal of reducing homelessness.

The city leases space at the Oxford Street Shelter, and operates overflow shelters at the City Hall Social Services waiting room and a day room at the Preble Street Resource Center.

Suslovic called the shelter conditions “less than optimal” because of the floor plan and lack of space.

A memo from city Health and Human Services Director Dawn Stiles estimated shifting the shelter to a one-floor operation could save the city as much as $813,000 annually. The estimate was made before a state Department of Health and Human Services audit cited the city for improperly seeking state reimbursement for operation expenses instead of a per-occupant fee.

Shifting to a per-head charge could also cost the city $825,000 in state aid, Suslovic said.

Task force members have not been named. They will be asked to look at how many people need to be served and how those eligibility requirements could change, the scope of services to be provided, what kind of permanent housing can be arranged, funding sources and possible alternative sites for shelters.

Stiles said she expects shelter populations to be reduced once the city better complies with state DHHS audit.

Park gets connected

Granting easements by an 8-1 vote to natural gas utility Unitil was actually a narrow margin as the move required eight votes to comply with the Land Bank ordinance changes approved by voters in June 2014.

One of the easements needed to connect gas lines from Westbrook Street passes under a Land Bank Commission parcel.

The 26-acre Portland Technology Park was launched in 2012 to bring biotech companies to the city. A 3.7-acre site was sold to Patrons Oxford Insurance Co., now based in Auburn.

Councilor Jon Hinck opposed granting the easements and the city footing as much as $75,000 in installation costs up front with no chance of reimbursement until enough customers come on line.

City Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said the connection work can be done this year, but because Unitil is a licensed utility, it was not possible to negotiate up-front payment for the line installations.

Woodford’s wait

A vote on the two-party agreement with the Maine Department of Transportation on a $1.5 million project to improve traffic flow, bicycle accessibility and pedestrian safety on Forest Avenue was postponed to May 4 as city staff need to work on more plan details.

The city share for the project is almost $370,000, according to plan documents, and includes resurfacing Forest Avenue as it passes from its intersections with Deering Avenue and Woodford Street to Ocean Avenue.

The project will also widen sidewalks and shoulders, eliminate Forest Avenue parking between Woodford’s Corner and Vannah Street in favor of a travel lane, and add bus tops.

City Public Services Director Mike Bobinsky said the project is expected to begin and finish in 2016, so as to minimize disruptions the work will cause.

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

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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.