Portland councilors balk at mayor's last-minute changes to business development deal

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PORTLAND — Some city councilors aren’t happy about the mayor’s intention to attach strings to city financial aid for an expansion of biotech company Immucell.

On Tuesday, Mayor Ethan Strimling announced he will add three amendments to a tax increment finance agreement with Immucell. The amendments would ensure the company provides prevailing state wages based on Maine Department of Labor data, and hiring preferences that encourage workforce diversity.

“If we are going to spend Portland taxpayers’ money we should keep the money coming back into the community,” Strimling said Tuesday in a press conference held with four local union officials.

The TIF and special credit agreements are scheduled for a City Council vote on Wednesday, Sept. 7. A public hearing will precede a discussion and vote by the council.

“I hope this is something taken for discussion with the public in a go-forward process, but not with us late in the process,” Immucell President and CEO Michael Brigham said Tuesday before Strimling’s announcement.

Afterwards, Councilor David Brenerman, chairman of the council Economic Development Committee, which unanimously recommended passage of the original TIF, said he expects the vote to be postponed until Sept. 19.

Brenerman objected to Strimling “changing the rules in the middle of the game.”

“I and other councilors will oppose the amendments when they are offered,” he said. “The contract was negotiated and voted upon by the committee. No one offered amendments during our deliberations and no one spoke at the committee’s public hearing.”

Strimling said he brought up the “responsible contracting” amendments before the TIF agreement was drafted.

One amendment requires all people hired to be paid wages and benefits defined by prevailing state or city laws.

A second amendment requires 25 percent of the project work hours to be filled by city residents who have lived in Portland at least 30 days. It also stipulates the 25 percent of the project work hours be filled by members of “protected classes,” as defined by the Maine Human Rights Act, or people considered disadvataged.

The protected classes include those defined by race, color, national origin, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Those considered disadvantaged include people who earn less than 80 percent of the area median income, who are homeless, are “custodial single” parents, receving public assistance, or are veterans.

The working hours can be filled by those meeting multiple requirements for residency and status.

A third amendment requires contractors to have participated in a Class A apprenticeship program approved by the U.S. Department of Labor for the last three years.

Councilor Jon Hinck is also expected to offer an amendment requiring construction to meet the city’s “Green Building Code” for environmental and efficiency standards.

The amendments would not require contractors to hire union labor, but John Napolitano, president of the Maine Building Trades Council, said the added requirements would provide local economic benefit.

“It levels the playing field, then any contractor can go bid on it,” he said.

Immucell now manufactures First Defense, which treats scours – diarrhea in newborn calves – at its plant at 56 Evergreen Drive. The company is launching a product called Mast Out, which would treat mastitis in cows without requiring dairy farmers to discard milk from infected animals.

Brigham said the company has spent $12 million to research and develop the product. Immucell plans to build a 12,600-square-foot manufacturing facility on Caddie Lane. Building costs are estimated at $3 million, and producing Mast Out requires equipment and machinery estimated to cost $14 million, Brigham said.

The TIF would return $374,000 of property taxes to Immucell over its 12-year life, based on the increased valuation of the undeveloped site on Caddie Lane.

Brigham said the job is already out to bid, and while the amendment provisions are admirable, they are not practical.

“We have already gone to bid with people committed to paying prevailing wages,” Brigham said.

The TIF presents a small portion of what Brigham has called a “complicated, four-legged stool,” made all the more challenging by the fact the company has to build its plant before it gets U.S. Food & Drug Administration approval to make and sell Mast Out.

Brigham said Strimling visited him late last month, but he did not see the text of the amendments until Aug. 29.

“It is a big project for a small company, so we are being creative,” he said. “To go back with these three conditions would be hard.”

Napolitano said he has been trying to make provisions such as these a part of city TIF arrangements for six years. He and Strimling would like guidelines like these as a part of all TIFs in the future.

“It is good opportunity and opportune time to bring it up,” Napolitano said.

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

Maine Building Trades Council President John Napolitano, left, and Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling on Tuesday, Sept. 6, said a TIF agreement for the expansion of Immucell needs to provide job opportunities for disadvantaged workers and ensure prevailing wages are paid.

Michael Brigham, Immucell president and chief executive officer, said amendments proposed to TIF financing in Portland were made too late in the process.

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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.
  • Bowdoin81

    I wonder if the cost of complying with these amendments over time would exceed the tax benefits of the TIF. Build the thing in Falmouth or Yarmouth!

  • Chew H Bird

    While I encourage language designed to keep work within Maine and within reasonable commuting range of proposed employment sites, plus adhering to Maine employment requirements, this is too late in the process. As for requiring disadvantaged or minority employment requirements, I applaud the intent and wish it would happen, but the reality is hamstringing a potential employer with additional employment conditions such as these in a predominantly white state is not realistic.