Portland is a great little city. It has handsome, old buildings; access to the ocean, lakes, rivers and mountains; good hospitals and medical care; great arts and culture; world-class restaurants, even our own minor league baseball, basketball and hockey teams. Your kids can get a good education in its schools, and the city is relatively safe.
Even so, too many people are struggling and too dependent on government, and our government is not performing as well as it should.
Conversion and preservation of the Williston West Church was thwarted by litigation. The renovation of Congress Square was halted by referendum. The Midtown Project, which would make good use of empty lots and bring housing and jobs to Bayside, has been hampered for years. It’s not clear what is going on with Thompson’s Point.
The city’s greatest asset, its waterfront, which could generate numerous jobs and enormous revenue, falls far short of its highest and best use because of restrictive zoning.
The City Council botched an ordinance raising the minimum wage and the ordinance banning panhandling on sidewalks and median strips.
When it emerged that the city was not complying with state and federal law in the way it administered its general assistance program, the city temporarily lost significant state funding. The council decided to spend several million dollars to keep providing GA to asylum seekers – at the same time that there were record numbers of people panhandling on our streets.
A number of the city’s core government functions have been usurped by referendum, including economic regulation, planning and zoning.
The city has experienced an unprecedented level of departures of key personnel (city manager, deputy city manager, police chief, fire chief, director of public services, assistant director of public services, finance director, human resources director, health and human services director, and, most recently, the longtime director of equal opportunity and multicultural affairs).
Meanwhile, we pay a lot for government services. Our tax burden is one of the highest in the country and has been going up with revaluation, mil rate and sales tax rate increases. On top of that, we are charged numerous, proliferating, and increasing fees for basic government services, such as the new fee for shopping bags, an increased fee for trash bags, a new fee for burglar alarms – even though they have been shown to reduce crime – and an about-to-be-separate and higher fee for sewer and storm runoff in addition to water supply.
City Hall’s reaction to problems is to increase government. It believes that the way to reduce homelessness is to impose requirements that real estate developers include a certain number of low- and middle- income housing units in their buildings. Or the way to make the city more affordable is to increase the minimum wage and provide more government assistance. And the way to increase economic development is to regulate business.
There is no significant, alternative vision. No argument that regulation discourages business and reduces jobs. That requiring low-income housing discourages development and reduces the amount of housing on the market. That a minimum wage that is too high reduces jobs. That too much government assistance breeds dependence. That the way to improve people’s lives is by creating an environment in which they can support themselves.
To the extent that the city has done anything about the nature of the debate in Portland, it has taken steps like adopting ranked-choice voting that make it more difficult for dissenting opinions to have a voice in government.
This week’s municipal ballot has at least 30 candidates, if you include races such as Casco Bay Lines director and Peaks Island councilor. None, that I know of, are active Republicans. The three candidates for mayor certainly aren’t. Their positions on the issues are left and left-of-left. The local ballot questions are to raise the minimum wage even higher than the council did, and to restrict development of The Portland Co. property.
Portland is a great little city. But it could be better. A little bit of political diversity would be an improvement.
Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.