PORTLAND — In the midst of Monday’s three-hour City Council meeting, Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr. posed a critical question.
“What are we doing?” he asked as councilors wrestled with a series of motions that ultimately postponed until June 1 a public hearing and final vote on the $221 million fiscal year 2016 municipal budget.
Before shifting the votes on 18 motions and orders that detail city spending beginning July 1, councilors unanimously approved an amended lease with Nova Star Cruises that will allow ferry service to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, to resume June 1.
The budget deliberations were more difficult, with Councilors Jill Duson, Ed Suslovic and Mavodones all frustrated by a Monday afternoon press release that announced the budget hearing and vote were postponed to June 15 – an announcement made almost five hours before councilors actually voted to postpone to June 1.
“I am completely baffled as to how the council could have made this decision and announced it this afternoon,” Mavodones said.
Mayor Michael Brennan said the news release text was “problematic,” but the council sentiment was evident.
“It became very clear to me earlier today that councilors had a desire to postpone,” he said, adding he tried to reach each councilor by phone.
Duson said she spoke with Brennan, but was still unaware of the press release.
“This is not how municipal government works,” Duson said.
Councilors Justin Costa and David Brenerman were among those in favor of postponing the vote, in the hope that some of the financial factors from the state biennial budget now being discussed in the Legislature may be resolved.
State funding for social services, including the city’s homeless shelter and General Assistance reimbursements, hang in the balance.
Brennan also noted oral arguments were heard May 15 in Cumberland County Superior Court in a lawsuit filed by the Maine Municipal Association, with the city as a co-plaintiff, on a state Department of Health and Human Services decision to exclude immigrants unable to prove their legal status from General Assistance reimbursements.
City Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said the court is aware of the budget implications of the case, but no time frame was set for a decision. She added it is likely the decision will be appealed, too.
Costa said he had suggested a postponement in a May 11 Council workshop on the budget.
“I think delaying action on the budget makes sense,” he said Monday.
Each motion to postpone to June 1 instead of June 15 passed by a 6-3 vote, with Mavodones, Brenerman and Brennan opposed. Brenerman sought postponement to a special meeting on June 8, because Councilor David Marshall will not be available June 15, but Suslovic is unavailable on June 8.
The June 1 meeting is expected to be lengthy, because the council will also hold a hearing and vote on rezoning the Portland Co. complex at 58 Fore St. The meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m.
The Nova Star ferry is set to arrive in the city on Saturday, and will start a second season on June 1.
The lease amendments approved by councilors reflect small shifts in operating times at the Ocean Gateway Terminal on Thames Street. The queuing and berthing times for cruises were revised to reflect earlier departure times.
“(Nova Star is) still looking for that sweet spot for the business model that stands on it own,” city Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said. He estimated last year’s service drew almost 60,000 passengers, with an increase of 20,000 expected this year in a shortened season through Oct. 14.
Mitchell on Tuesday said the combination of rents and fees could generate more than $300,000 in revenue for the city. Fees for berthing and parking, and ground rents amount to about $130,000, while the company is charged $2.50 per passenger.