Portland councilor expects report on refugee assistance office by December

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PORTLAND — Councilor David Brenerman sees a need for a new city office to help immigrants and refugees assimilate in Portland, and sees a wider need it can address.

“I don’t think the role will necessarily to provide services, but to act as a convener,” Brenerman said July 6, a day after the City Council Economic Development Committee he leads reviewed its work on a proposed Office for New American Mainers.

The next steps for the committee include a public hearing in September and conference in October before recommendations are made to the whole City Council in December, Brenerman said.

“I think we are at a point where we have to talk further with folks in the various immigrant refugee and asylee communities,” he said.

He added the scope of the office will likely go beyond trying to link new Mainers with employment and education opportunities to include all city residents who would benefit from skills training, instruction on getting jobs or getting beyond other barriers that keep them from working.

“We have not agreed on a name for whatever office we might recommend creation of,” Brenerman said. “It may be more an office of economic opportunity.”

The new municipal office was first proposed by Mayor Ethan Strimling last fall, and $10,000 was allocated by City Manager Jon Jennings for more study. Developing such an office is also a City Council goal for the year.

The Economic Development Committee, which also includes Councilors Justin Costa and Spencer Thibodeau, reviewed data compiled by Jennings’ senior advisor Julie Sullivan that details both the public response to Strimling’s proposal at a meeting in March and how other cities are working on assimilation.

Census statistics on 14 New England cities compiled by Sullivan show Portland has the second-to-lowest rate of foreign-born residents – at 7.6 percent in a population of more than 66,000. Lawrence, Massachusetts, topped the list with 38 percent in a population of more than 76,000 foreign-born.

Getting new Mainers and anyone else who has been kept from the labor market to the workplace has been a constant theme for Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and Tae Chong, a former School Board member who is a counselor for Coastal Enterprises Inc.

The Maine Department of Labor’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rates for Portland have been between 2.6 and 2.8 percent from January through May, and Hall has talked about Chamber members being unable to fill jobs.

At the same time, the Rev. Kenneth Lewis, pastor of the Green Memorial AME Zion Church, has urged city officials to consider the entire population when considering economic opportunities and social integration.

“I am an advocate for young adult engagement, the age cohort of 16 to 40 where there is a pipeline of skilled workers who can make Portland their home and contribute to the tax base,” Lewis said in March.

Nationally, city governments in Aurora, Colorado; Dayton, Ohio; Louisville, Kentucky; and Boston are among those to establish offices and outreach for assimilation and economic opportunities.

Brenerman said the committee is still looking to evaluate what services are available, including English instruction and skills training, and where there are gaps inhibiting opportunities.

“This office could work with employers and the Chamber of Commerce to encourage local employers to give folks a chance,” Brenerman said.

One possible way to achieve this is through the city’s Helping Individuals Regain Employment, or HIRE, program established this winter to help General Assistance recipients get back to work.

Brenerman noted the program could help with English instruction, building resumes, and possibly address a credentials gap some immigrants face because they lack the proper state or federal certifications to continue in the careers they had in their countries of origin.

The objective in September is to have groups and organizations supporting disadvantaged residents elaborate on service gaps or any lack of communication by answering specific questions from Sullivan.

In October, Brenerman said national speakers will be invited to a conference or forum to give a wider perspective. He is hoping someone from the White House Task Force on New Americans will attend and speak, and said there will also be individual breakout sessions.

“In order to set up a new office in City Hall and hire a person or persons, the committee felt like it needed to see what is being provided now and the role the city can play here,” Brenerman summarized.

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

Portland City Councilor David Brenerman said the Economic Development Committee will make recommendations in December on assimilation and economic opportunities for new Mainers.

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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.