In the past few months, I have had opportunities to hear Portland’s new mayor, Ethan Strimling, and its new city manager, John Jennings, speak and answer questions.
I heard the mayor at my neighborhood association annual meeting and a Republican committee meeting. I heard Jennings at a separate Republican committee meeting.
Interestingly, both referenced President Ronald Reagan.
Strimling recalled Reagan’s line about government being the problem and how he, Strimling, believes that government is a problem-solver. Jennings recalled the same line. He didn’t agree with it either. He thinks that government is part of the solution, but that its role is limited to performing certain core functions well.
I went to my neighborhood meeting feeling that I was being nickel-and-dimed for basic government services in order to fund the city’s other priorities.
Within the previous year, the city increased the cost, shrunk the size, and changed the color, of the incredibly hard-to-close bags that it requires us to use for our trash. It imposed a quarterly storm water run-off fee, even though storm water runs off my property and into a nearby river, not into the city’s sewers. It imposed a fee for my having a security alarm, even though the police rarely come to my neighborhood. All this when the Public Works Department couldn’t seem to find my street to plow this past winter or to repair its potholes.
My neighbors did not seem to share my irritation. They were concerned about how we could provide more affordable housing and how we could help the panhandlers who have cropped up far from the city’s center.
Boy, did I feel like Scrooge.
At the Republican committee meeting, I asked the mayor about those panhandlers: who they are and why they need help. I argued that in the absence of such information, everyone is operating on the basis of preconceptions. The mayor seemed to feel that it was illegal for the city to even ask any questions of the panhandlers. I shared my dismay about how we can’t possibly solve a problem we don’t understand.
I asked the same question of Jennings. He said he understood from the police chief that many of the panhandlers on the streets and median strips of Portland are “backpackers” or “travelers,” who migrate here from places to our south. If that’s the case, I am not sure why that’s a migration we want to encourage.
Jennings also described the situation he inherited when he started last summer.
The city had been neglecting its buildings, streets, and underground infrastructure. Capital improvement projects that had been approved and funded had not been performed. What projects were undertaken were not coordinated, so that streets like Allen Avenue were opened several times. Fifty city employees were taking city cars home at night, some as far away as Windham. The city had no cell phone policy about who gets a cell phone and for how many minutes.
Jennings believes that the city cannot be all things to all people. It should focus on its core functions and do them efficiently and well. That involves examining every department and function that the city has, eliminating some, consolidating some, privatizing others, and generally right-sizing the city to make it a more affordable place to live.
That’s why he proposed transferring the India Street Health Clinic’s services to the Portland Community Health Center. They were duplicative. Few cities are involved in directly providing health care to patients, because it really isn’t a proper role for municipal government.
The PCHC could provide the same services at lower cost because, as a federally qualified health provider, it gets reimbursed at a higher rate than India Street. The Ryan White grant for HIV care could be transferred to the PCHC. Jennings did not make the proposal precipitously or without consultation. He approached the council and mayor in advance, and thought that he had all of their support.
Jennings put a hold on various new construction projects, such as rerouting State and High Streets, and constructing the Bayside storm water cistern, until more urgent maintenance needs are met. (Hence all the road work being done around the city.) The cistern was a $30 million dollar stop-gap that would have done nothing to advance the city toward compliance with the EPA’s ultimate goal of total separation between storm water and wastewater. He got the library to raise $400,000 of the $650,000 needed to renovate the Peaks Island branch. He went to Reiche School and determined that a $15,000 roof repair would do instead of a $700,000 replacement.
Unlike my exchange with Strimling, I liked what I heard from Jennings.
Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.