Portland's $64M question remains unanswered as council again delays school bond decision

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PORTLAND — The school bond stalled again, but the $3.92 million Housing and Community Development Annual Action Plan moved forward at Monday’s City Council meeting.

After Mayor Ethan Strimling shifted the discussion on the $64 million bond to upgrade and renovate four elementary schools to the end of the agenda, councilors had nothing to say that would break the impasse on sending the bond to voters.

Councilors then voted to postpone votes to April 5 on three orders to authorize the bond and send it to a voter referendum. But the impasse could last through late April, if not longer.

Seven votes are required to send a bond question to referendum. Strimling and five councilors support the $64 million question, while Councilors Nick Mavodones, Jill Duson and Belinda Ray have advocated less-expensive options.

Duson, who said March 21 she will not support a referendum question that does not include a less expensive option that would hold off on repairs to Reiche and Longfellow Elementary schools, noted Monday that any compromise that develops would have an April 5 first reading, and face a public hearing and council vote at the scheduled April 24 meeting.

Monday’s brief discussion on postponing the vote came after six hours of public hearing testimony and council deliberations on the bond at a March 20 meeting. No public comment was heard Monday night.

CDBG projects

Councilors will vote April 5 on the Housing and Community Development Annual Action Plan that reflects an excess in demand and paucity of resources.

The bulk of plan funding comes from expected $1.8 million in Community Development Block Grant money originating from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The HUD HOME Investment Partnerships Program is also expected to provide $832,000 in grants, and the agency’s Emergency Solutions Grant will add $161,000.

Federal regulations require two public hearings before the council can approve the plan, which was developed by an allocation committee and amended by City Manager Jon Jennings.

“I was very impressed with what the committee had put together, but unfortunately, the committee has some limitations in re-allocating funds,” Jennings said.

Jennings eliminated $201,000 in public infrastructure spending for Marginal Way street improvements and reallocated the money to Youth and Family Outreach, Catholic Charities of Maine, and the Catherine Morrill Day Nursery.

Mayor Ethan Strimling urged a second re-allocation by shifting $210,000 from sidewalk projects in Bayside to help fund dormitory work at the Iris Network. The Iris Network provides training and services for blind and low vision clients and is seeking $157,000.

Strimling suggested the sidewalk projects be funded in the fiscal year 2018 capital improvements plan. He also suggested shifting the community policing funding to the municipal operations budget as a hedge against federal budget cuts to block grants.

In a memo to councilors, Jennings said the grant funding has not been set by HUD, so the current funding levels are the estimate used in the plan.

“I’m extremely worried about what is going on in Washington,” he said, because President Donald Trump’s proposed budget seeks to eliminate the CDBG program.

Jennings also proposed a 10 percent cut from each social service program that does not have mandated funding in order to fund Amistad’s Peer Coaching program for people with mental health and substance use disorders.

The grant plan could also fund a $130,000 outreach collaboration between the Milestone Foundation and Greater Portland Health to provide health care screenings and services to the city’s homeless population through Milestone’s mobile Home Team.

“It will allow us to help our consumers to have a clear path back to health care,” Milestone’s Joe McNally said.

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

Supporters of a $64 million bond to rebuild four Portland schools waited in vain for the City Council to discuss the matter at the March 27 meeting.

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.