Strimling questions priorities of Portland budget

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PORTLAND — City councilors took two steps forward in the budget process Monday, but only after Mayor Ethan Strimling leveled criticism at the municipal budget.

Jennings responded Tuesday with a terse statement of his own.

The $103.6 million school budget, meanwhile, was initially accepted and is set for a second public hearing and council vote Monday May 2. It will then go to voters in a state-mandated referendum May 10.

The $27.5 million capital improvement budget covering municipal, education and sewer bonds passed unanimously. Of the approved borrowing, $12.9 million would be repaid through property tax revenues, which will not increase the fiscal year 2017 property tax rate.

Councilors also passed a resolution banning non-essential municipal travel to states which have passed laws that discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.

The council also gave the Health & Human Services Committee the go-ahead to amend city ordinances to increase the minimum age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21.

The longest debate of the meeting came when councilors voted against permit applications for a festival and alcohol sales at an Aug. 14 block party and fundraiser planned by B. Good, 15 Exchange St.

Strimling and Councilor Spencer Thibodeau supported the festival application, but the rest of the council suggested organizers meet with neighbors, including Robert Sevigny of the Paper Patch, 21 Exchange St., on ways to ensure the block party would not harm other businesses.

“The block party (last year) was poorly communicated, poorly planned and more poorly executed,” Sevigny said, adding he closed his store at 1 p.m. when he typically stays open to 7 p.m.

Strimling on the budget

Strimling, meanwhile, praised the $236 million budget introduced April 4 by City Manager Jon Jennings for its attention to improving infrastructure.

But he concluded, in remarks required by the City Charter, “the challenge is whether or not we have struck a balance with our human service needs.”

The budget is set for a May 2 first reading and public hearing, and then a second reading, public hearing and council vote May 16.

Spending on social services, especially the proposed shift of public health care from the India Street Public Health Center to the Portland Community Health Center, remained troublesome for Strimling.

He said five questions needed suitable answers before he could support the shift. Included are where the city needle exchange will be, whether the federal Ryan White Grant funding HIV services at India Street could be transferred or otherwise made available to the PCHC, whether the transfer of services will prevent any patients from “fall(ing) through the cracks,” and how to protect the anonymity of patients who receive screenings and services for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.

Strimling also said he needs more specifics in the transfer plan for services, which he contrasted to Jennings’ successful plan to create a city office for permitting and inspections.

“The city manager’s approach to that issue should be viewed as a model on how not only to improve government services, but to do it in a way that dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s,” the mayor said.

Strimling also lamented the loss of other social service programs to prevent overdoses, tobacco use and obesity. Strimling acknowledged the reductions were primarily due to the loss of state grants, but said the city had absorbed such programs in the past.

His remarks were not appreciated by Councilors Jill Duson and Jon Hinck, who left their seats to comment from the floor during the hearing on the school budget.

“As a general matter, I thought the first half of the mayor’s comments were completely unfair,” Duson said, while adding she welcomed the wider discussion of the role of city government.

Jennings issued his own response in a one-paragraph press release Tuesday afternoon.

“While there is much I could say in response to Mayor Strimling’s comments on my budget proposal and the Finance Committee’s unanimously approved recommended budget, I believe it is much more important to focus on doing my job for the people of Portland and working with the City Council to move the city forward in a positive direction,” Jennings said. “My position requires me to make tough decisions on a daily basis that some may disagree with. That is called leadership.”

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

Mayor Ethan Strimling comments on the Portland municipal budget Monday. In his remarks, he questioned the plan to shift public health services.

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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.