State of Portland: Homelessness, education among mayor's concerns

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PORTLAND — Mayor Michael Brennan recited a roster of achievements and challenges Monday night in Portland’s first “state of the city” address.

The address is required by the 2010 City Charter amendment that created Brennan’s office; he is the city’s first popularly elected mayor since 1923.

“A lot of what I’ve been doing is trying to figure out what the mayor can and should do,” he said Monday.

Brennan credited partnerships with the City Council and city staff for much of Portland’s success over the year. He then summarized that success with a list of kudos that included a below-average unemployment rate of 5.6 percent, $250 million of commercial and residential development in progress, and national rankings for the city’s quality of life.

He also outlined challenges, such as federally mandated improvements to the city’s storm-water system, the increasing number of people experiencing homelessness, and reductions in state and federal budgets.

“We need help from the state, and we need help from the federal government,” Brennan said. “We will do our part, but we can’t do it alone.”

Education was another focus of the mayor’s remarks.

“I want to be able to assure parents that Portland schools are some of the best in Maine, and some of the best in the country,” he said.

He said his goal for Portland is a school system in which 99 percent of students graduate from high school and then have an opportunity to attend college. He also said City Hall would announce a major new “education partnership” in the coming weeks, but did not go into detail.

Portland, Brennan said, is much changed from the city his grandmother found when she arrived from Ireland in 1909.

As an example, he mentioned an October visit by the vice president of the one-year-old country of South Sudan, Riek Machar, who addressed hundreds of the city’s Sudanese-American residents at Portland High School.

“I’m proud of the way Portland has greeted its new residents,” Brennan said, although he noted that more must be done to bridge language barriers and provide job training for the city’s immigrants.

Food security is another area where Portland can make improvements, Brennan said.

He noted that more than 500 people turned to Preble Street Resource Center for an evening meal Friday, the highest number ever. And 80 to 85 percent of the city’s food is imported from outside the state, he said, putting residents at risk if there is a disruption in the food supply.

“The ripple effect is huge,” he said.

Last year, Brennan created a task force on healthy and sustainable food systems. He said Monday that one of its goals is to increase the use of locally produced food in city schools from the current level ot 30 percent to 50 percent by 2015.

As he closed his address, Brennan recounted a story of talking with a Japanese exchange student. When he asked the student what he would remember most about the city, the student mentioned three things: restaurants, brew-houses and the kindness of its residents.

“I want to be able to say that we are creating a kinder community,” Brennan said. “A community that understands everyone has a role to play and a contribution to make.”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

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