Residents urge Portland to keep multicultural, business officials; school budget in council's hands

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PORTLAND — Two positions targeted to be cut in the city’s proposed budget received strong support Tuesday evening from members of the public, who told the Finance Committee both jobs are vital.

Residents weighed in on the $196 million fiscal 2011 city budget proposed by City Manager Joe Gray. It includes the elimination of more than a dozen city jobs and cuts to services, and is $7 million larger than the current budget.

The Finance Committee on Tuesday also approved an $89.9 million school budget proposal and forwarded it on to the City Council. The School Committee cut $109,000 from its original $90 million proposal at the direction of councilors.

The school budget drew little public comment at the committee meeting, and just one person spoke about it at a full council hearing later Tuesday night.

Residents did have a lot to say to the committee about the proposed elimination of the business development representative from the Economic Development Division, and the reduction to part-time of the director of equal opportunities and multicultural affairs, which is currently held by Rachel Talbot Ross.

Members of the Somali and Sudanese communities said Ross is an important link for them to the city and the state, and often helps break down cultural and language barriers.

The Rev. Virginia Rincon, a leader of the city’s Latino community, said reducing the multicultural affairs position would interrupt years of progress in Portland.

“To cut this position in half is alarming to me,” Rincon said.

Members of the business community spoke in favor of saving the business development position, which they said is vital to bringing good jobs and businesses to the city. The Economic Development Division, according to Portland Downtown District Director Jan Beitzer, has gone from four staff members to one in the past six years.

“This is a city of small businesses,” said Beitzer, who also encouraged the city to look for federal funding to pay for economic development positions.

Gary Goodrich, the owner of a bio-tech business in Portland and a member of the Biotechnology Association of Maine, said the business development manager was instrumental in helping him move his company from Scarborough to Portland.

“I’ve worked with the Portland Economic Development Department quite a bit,” Goodrich said. “You get a lot of return from that department.”

The Finance Committee is scheduled to meet again Friday, April 30, at 11 a.m. in Room 24 in the basement of City Hall, when it is expected to vote on the  city budget and forward its recommendation to the City Council.

The council will hold a public hearing on the budget May 3 at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers. It will also vote on the school budget at that meeting.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or