Black Lives Matter demonstrators in front of Portland Police Headquarters on Middle Street on June 1. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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As Portland’s proposed $202 million municipal budget entered the final week of the committee process there were continuing calls from some residents to defund the Police Department and reallocate that money to social services.

Mayor Kate Snyder also cautioned committee members and city staff the budget still does not include two major expenses: the as-yet-unscheduled Charter Commission election and Snyder’s proposed racial equity steering committee.

Part of that panel’s work will include an investigation into the police behavior in a clash with protesters June 1, when 23 people were arrested in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. 

According to the city clerk’s office, having a special Charter Commission election at any point in the year would cost the city approximately $71,500. If the vote is held in conjunction with the regular June elections the additional cost would be only $33,000. The extra $33,000 has already been allocated in City Manager Jon Jennings’ fiscal year 2021 budget proposal.

Several residents at the Finance Committee’s Sept. 2 public hearing called for the city to defund the police, which has become a national rallying cry in the Black Lives Matter movement after Floyd’s death. Proponents want to see the money reinvested in services like homelessness prevention and housing.

Portland City Councilor and Finance Committee Chairman Nick Mavodones, lower left, speaks during the remote Sept. 2 meeting of the committee, which is scheduled to conclude its work on the city’s fiscal 2021 budget Sept. 10. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Christian MilNeil, a former Portland Press Herald journalist who said he was threatened by police earlier this year, called for a hiring freeze for the department. MilNeil was confronted at home by police, who accused him of vandalism and threatened to arrest him. MilNeil claimed police harassed him because he was critical of them on Twitter.

MilNeil said that Somerville, Massachusetts, outside Boston, has a larger population than Portland, but a smaller Police Department and fewer police officers.

“Compared to peer cities, we have bigger budgets and more police,” he said.

MilNeil said it’s not right for the police budget to be spent on arresting homeless people in Deering Oaks Park, essentially making the Cumberland County Jail a shelter for them. He said this drains the budget and makes everyone’s lives more difficult. 

“We’re facing a lot of civic emergencies this year,” he said. “We need our leaders to take these emergencies more seriously.”

Police Chief Frank Clark said his department’s proposed budget of nearly $17.2 million is a reduction of more than 5 percent from the current operating budget and contains funding for a pilot program to divert emergency calls related to behavioral and mental health issues to a team of professionals in those fields instead of police officers.

Clark said the trial is slated to begin Oct. 1 and would give police “another point of reference” when crafting the 2022 fiscal budget.

“We think this has a lot of potential,” he said. “It could be a win-win for everybody.”

Asked by Councilor Pious Ali about ideal police staffing, Clark said he didn’t have a “magic number.” He said at the end of 2019, the department was authorized to have 162 officers, but it never reached that level because of retirements, injuries, and other reasons.

“What we have doesn’t feel like enough at times,” he said. “I can say that with certainty.”

Resident Dana Colihan said the Police Department’s proposed budget reduction barely approaches the BLM movement’s goal of defunding the police. Echoing others who spoke, she said police funding should be reallocated to make sure other city services, including plowing all sidewalks in the winter, will continue.

“The funding currently allocated to the Police Department should go to making sure Portland is accessible to everyone this winter,” Colihan said.

Colihan and others also spoke to a proposed property tax reduction, which several people claimed would disproportionately help higher-income residents who own property and not renters who may be struggling.

“Reducing taxes at equal rates would disproportionately help the rich,” Colihan said. “There should be a tax relief that targets those who have suffered the most.”

Another speaker, Kate Trenbeath, said tax relief would only help “predatory landlords” and hurt renters, and said defunding the police should be a tool to help those who are struggling. Trenbeath said their landlord has already increased the rent, despite knowing they had lost their job due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I do not believe they deserve a cent of that proposed tax cut,” Trenbeath said.

City councilors said they could not pick and choose where to raise or lower individual taxes. Councilor Belinda Ray also said based on state law, Portland cannot impose taxes on things like sugary drinks or fossil-fuel producers, as cities like New York are able to do.

Initially presented on Aug. 5, the proposed 2021 budget required essentially all departments to cut their budgets by 5 percent. The proposal called for eliminating up to 65 city jobs, although several were already vacant.

The city has proposed reducing the tax rate by 5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. Cumberland County tax rates, however, which are out of the city’s control, are increasing by 4 percent, meaning the overall property tax rate decline for city residents is just 1 cent per $1,000 of assessed value.

The School Department, which had its budget approved by voters in July, did not include a tax increase.

The Finance Committee was scheduled to send the budget to the City Council at its Sept. 2 meeting, but Councilor and Committee Chairman Nick Mavodones said the committee needed one more meeting to consider last-minute items.

The council is now slated to hold a first reading of the budget proposal at its Sept. 9 meeting, and the Finance Committee will hold its final budget meeting on Sept. 10. This schedule will enable the committee to propose amendments when the council holds a second reading on the budget later this month.