Portland council hands out $1.8M in community development grants

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PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday unanimously approved the city manager’s plan to distribute $1.8 million in federal Community Development Block Grants.

The big winners include the Abyssinian Meeting House and the Maine Irish Heritage Center, organizations dedicated to preserving Portland’s cultural history, which were at risk of not receiving funding under one of the options presented to the council by City Manager Mark Rees.

After reviewing the recommendations of a scoring committee that assessed the needs of each of the almost 40 applicants, Rees gave the council two plans to distribute the grants.

The first provided nearly $249,000 for a street lighting project on Cumberland Avenue, but left the Abyssinian Meeting House and the Irish Heritage Center unfunded, and the Catherine Morrill Day Nursery more than $100,000 short of its funding needs for a window and restoration project.

The second option provided funding for those organizations – although the Abyssinian Meeting House was still left more than $125,000 short of its request – but shifted, in theory, the cost of the Cumberland Avenue lighting project to the city’s Capital Improvement Projects plan.

Councilors received a five-year, $150 million to $160 million outlook for CIP spending for the first time in a workshop just prior to the Monday evening meeting, and the barely digested information weighed on some of them.

“I don’t feel comfortable putting any more burdens on that CIP plan than we absolutely have to,” at-large Councilor John Anton said. He favored the first CDBG option, but ultimately voted for the second.

District 1 Councilor Kevin Donoghue, hoping to support the second option without endangering the Cumberland Avenue project’s funding, sought assurance from his colleagues that the street lighting project would be a priority in the CIP process. The council will likely not vote on the CIP plan until after this year’s final budget is adopted on May 21.

The Irish Heritage Center was granted $18,000 to complete an accessibility project, while the Abyssinian Meeting House received $118,000 of the $250,000 it sought to complete restoration of the historic African-American church in the East End.

The council gave the Catherine Morrill Day School $188,000 for its restoration project.

Councilors also allocated $96,000 to a preservation project at the Portland Observatory, a national historic landmark, and more than $77, 000 for an accessibility project on the Fort Allen Overlook above the Eastern Promenade.

Social service providers including Preble Street, the Milestone Foundation H.O.M.E. team, and Amistad’s peer support and recovery program received grants, for $180,000, $75,000, and more than $19,000, respectively.

Notable omissions from the plan that the council approved were the Opportunity Alliance, which had requested about $56,000 for senior and neighborhood programs; Cultivating Community, which requested $58,000 for a community agriculture initiative, and the Frannie Peabody Center’s $40,000 application for an HIV client services emergency program.

“All of the projects that requested funding are worthy of funding,” Rees said in a memo to the council. “Unfortunately there are not enough funds to support all the good work that is being done in the City.”

Andrew Cullen can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or at acullen@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter at: @ACullenFore.

Sidebar Elements

Council wants brewery to repay lost sewer fees

PORTLAND — The City Council  on Monday directed its legal team to pursue a deal with Shipyard Brewing Co. to recover lost sewer fees dating back to 1996.

The action came after a closed-door executive session Monday night, City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said.

The goal of the negotiations is “to come up with a solution that both parties will agree to, that corporation counsel will present back to the City Council,” Clegg said.

Councilors did not set a time line for the talks or indicate how much of the lost revenue – which has been estimated at $1.5 million – they hope to get back.

The decision came after a public-session description by lawyer Bryan M. Dench of his two-month investigation into why the brewery was not charged increased sewer fees after a six-inch water main was installed during the company’s expansion in 1996.

The city continued to charge the company only for a four-inch main, even though the brewery’s water use more than doubled.

Dench, of Skelton, Taintor & Abbott in Auburn, said he did not find conclusive evidence of wrongdoing on the part of city staff or the brewery, but that there was also no decisive explanation for how miscommunication between the Public Services Department and the Portland Water District resulted in the billing oversight.

Finding the records he wanted from the early days of the computerized data era was challenging, Dench said. He was also unable to interview two key city staffers who were involved in the billing and water main installation process, because they have died.

— Andrew Cullen