Council kills Portland shelter licensing, calls for state task force on homelessness

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On the same night Mayor Kate Snyder called on Gov. Janet Mills and the state Legislature to establish a homelessness task force, the City Council narrowly rejected emergency shelter license requirements it had previously decided to reconsider.

Also Monday, the council approved a $269 million municipal budget and named a new city clerk.

Seal of the city of portlandThe proposed shelter requirements would have created a fee structure for new shelters and capped them at 300 beds when they are within a mile of other shelters.

The homelessness task force would ideally help improve the city’s response to “unprecedented levels” of people experiencing homelessness in Portland, Snyder said.

Her resolution called on Mills to form a task force “engaging a broad stakeholder group,” including representatives from local and federal governments, state and city health and human services departments, and others. It seeks revision of the state’s General Assistance law to regionalize the administration of public benefits or set a threshold for the minimum level of assistance each city or town must provide.

It also calls for the formation of a state resettlement office, would establish a statewide emergency shelter system, and address other issues associated with homelessness, such as mental health services, workforce training, and locating permanent housing.

The shelter requirements were approved last November, but the council voted to reconsider after newly elected councilors took office in December. On Monday, the council narrowly rejected those requirements by a 5-4 margin, with Councilors Mark Dion, Tae Chong, Pious Ali, and Snyder in the minority.

Chong said with the city sheltering so many people there would be a need for new shelters. “By not making a decision you are making a decision,” he said.

Snyder had said she was open to the idea of councilors amending the order if that would have resulted in it passing. “I am in favor of picking this up and seeing where we are,” she said.

Following the rejection, councilors also voted to indefinitely postpone the issue, a procedural maneuver to ensure an item does not return for deliberation or a vote.

Budget

The municipal budget calls for a 5.5 percent tax increase after a $2 million revenue shortfall was resolved by allocating American Rescue Plan Act funding. It would require a tax increase of $119 annually for the owner of a home valued at $350,000.

Councilors previously adopted the School Department’s proposed $133.1 million budget, which includes a 4.1 percent tax increase, and sent that to a June 14 voter referendum. Assuming voters approve the school budget, the owner of a property valued at $350,000 would have to pay an additional $217 in annual taxes, an overall increase of 4.8 percent.

The 2023 city budget is up approximately 27 percent from the current budget, largely to address the homelessness crisis and the influx of asylum seekers. Chong said the city is sheltering approximately 1,700 people a night, and 1,200 are asylum seekers.

Dion, who chairs the finance committee, which unanimously supported the budget, called the 2023 budget “prudent and reasonable.”

“I think the city manager did the hard work of streamlining the budget,” he said.

There was very little public comment. George Rheault, a frequent council critic, said the inclusion in the budget of one new staffer in the city sustainability office isn’t enough if the city isn’t taking steps towards actually achieving the One Climate Future plan, which would cut Portland and South Portland’s carbon footprint dramatically in the next 30 years.

Rheault said the city could hire 10 more people for the office, but it wouldn’t matter because One Climate Future won’t be achieved “by coffee seminars.”

City clerk

The council Monday night also hired Ashley Rand to replace retired City Clerk Katherine Jones. Rand will start her position on July 6; Deputy City Clerk Melissa Cowie was named  interim city clerk for the next month. 

Rand has been Westbrook’s deputy director of economic development. She also served as the city’s deputy city clerk and previously worked as marketing services manager at TideSmart Global in Falmouth.

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