Despite pleas from members of the public to delay its vote until after Tuesday’s election, the Portland City Council Monday unanimously approved the master lease agreement for a new homeless services center on Riverside Street.
While councilors typically try to keep their meetings before elections relatively short, most of Monday’s five-hour session was spent on the shelter discussion. And despite claims by members of the public that they were trying to subvert the following day’s election, councilors said they didn’t see a conflict.
The 208-bed shelter planned near the Westbrook city line received conditional approval from the Planning Board in September. The city has maintained it is now exempt from a citizen initiative that appeared on Tuesday’s ballot in an attempt to block the project by limiting new shelters in the city to no more than 50 beds.
The city placed a competing measure on the ballot, which would have increased the limit to no more than 150 beds.
There was also a third option, which supported neither of the first options and would have left the shelter language unchanged.
Thirty people spoke on this issue during Monday’s meeting.
Many of those who supported the lease were from organizations including Amistad, Spurwink, and Shalom House, which provide some level of service to unhoused people.
Many of those who spoke against the measure were involved in some manner with Smaller Shelters for Portland, the group that successfully placed the referendum on the ballot.
Sally Bowden-Schaible, for example, said a Monday decision would be undemocratic and ignore the will of voters.
“We believe the best interests of people experiencing homelessness are not what you’re proposing,” she said. “While you may have differing perspectives, please respect the citizens who elected you.”
Justin Beth, who said he was involved with the initiative, pushed back against supporters’ suggestion that opponents had not discussed their platform with unhoused individuals. He called that “disingenuous” and said the shelter will likely be unused most of the time, because people may opt to camp outside to achieve some level of privacy rather than be in a 208-bed facility.
“The people of Portland deserve to be heard on this,” Beth said. “I urge you to postpone approval and allow for the democratic process to occur.”
But the eight councilors disagreed with the suggestion they were subverting democracy, with several saying the people of Portland would vote regardless of whatever action the council took Monday night.
They also deferred to previous guidance they have received from city attorneys, that because the proposal received its conditional approval from the Planning Board when it did, the smaller shelters referendum will have no bearing on the Riverside project even if the initiative prevails.
The Riverside shelter will replace the space the city leases at the Oxford Street Shelter, where councilors and city staff have said conditions are inadequate, unsanitary, and inhumane. Supporters of the Riverside shelter have also said it wouldn’t be fair to delay the process anymore, because that would harm the unhoused people who need the services the shelter would provide.
According to materials provided to councilors, the cost of the homeless services center will be capped at $25 million – a $5 million increase that is the result of conditions of the Planning Board’s approval.
Councilor Nick Mavodones was one of those who said he didn’t see the conflict opponents suggested. He said the shelter proposal has worked its way through the council and Planning Board, as well as various committees, for several years. Monday’s vote was about the lease, he said, while many of the comments were about the shelter itself. Based on the legal guidance councilors have received, Mavodones said he was comfortable voting.
“It’s been a long time we’ve been dealing with this, and there are homeless people who need these services,” he said. “Every day we wait, people aren’t getting the services they need.”
Activists behind the smaller shelters initiative have indicated they are prepared to sue the city depending on the outcome of the election and if the city continues forward with the Riverside plan. They have also presented the city with a legal interpretation that concludes the city did not meet the 45-day threshold to exempt the project from a successful referendum.
Councilor Belinda Ray said the city should be prepared for litigation, but that shouldn’t impact their action Monday night or their interpretation that the Riverside shelter is exempt from the referendum. She also said regardless of the shelter initiative outcome, she wouldn’t want to reconsider the vote.
“This is the right decision,” Ray said. “It’s been a long time coming. The people who need it cannot afford more delays.”
City Manager Jon Jennings, whose last day on the job was Monday, advised councilors that Monday’s action was just an approval, and they have to wait at least 10 days – and could wait longer – before signing the lease.
City Council OKs $14.2M spending plan for rescue act funds
Portland city councilors Monday unanimously approved a plan to spend more than $14 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.
In addition to a list of priorities put together by city staff, a result of a public input campaign, the council added funding for additional projects, including $565,000 to a recuperative care program created by MaineHealth, Preble Street, and Greater Portland Health. Most of that would be paid for by delaying a Portland Water District project on Concord Street until additional ARPA funding is available.
Ann Tucker, CEO of Greater Portland Health, said the program will support people who have received medical care by finding stable housing and providing them the opportunity to obtain social services. This allocation will initially be able to help 15 people.
That proposal came as an amendment from Mayor Kate Snyder. Councilor Belinda Ray also proposed an amendment with Councilor April Fournier that would have earmarked $1 million for the program. Their amendment was defeated.
Ray proposed several other amendments, including allocating $37,000 to Portland Public Library for ventilation improvements at the Peaks Island and Burbank branches; allocating $600,000 for new public restrooms, which would double that funding; and allocating $250,000 to increase the city’s tree canopy.
Outgoing City Manager Jon Jennings said if all of Ray’s proposals had been approved, the city would have had to remove money for the Kiwanis pool from this round of ARPA funding. Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said it was unlikely the pool would receive funding in the next round.
Ray’s amendment for the libraries failed on a tie vote, with Councilors Nick Mavodones, Mark Dion, Tae Chong and Snyder opposed. Her amendment on the tree canopy passed 6-2, with Mavodones and Chong opposed.
There was some funding left unallocated, in case the council decides to add other priorities. O’Connell said it is possible to shift funds, and if certain projects didn’t use their full allocations to reallocate the remaining funds to other projects.
With the approved amendments, the city will have to cut just under $100,000 in spending from the ARPA funds, which Jennings and O’Connell said will likely be from the pool.
Portland received around $46 million in two payments from ARPA: the first was 60 days after the plan was approved by President Joe Biden in March, and the second will come one year after that.
Of the $23 million, the city already allocated $8.75 million in the fiscal year 2022 budget. The remaining $14.2 million is for that first tranche payment.
The city has previously used ARPA funding to offset revenue lost from the COVID-19 pandemic. Portland and other municipalities have received guidance from the federal government on how to use these funds. Cities are not allowed to use the funds for recurring payments, such as payroll, but instead must focus on one-time costs.
The city has to allocate how it will use the total amount of funds by Dec. 31, 2024, and fully spend the money by Dec. 31, 2026.
Some of the bigger items in the city’s proposal, which was unanimously approved include:
- $3.9 million to replace the Kiwanis Community Pool.
- $3.5 million to support the new homeless services center.
- $1 million to supplement existing funding for housing programs.
- $750,000 to aid the consolidation of Health and Human Services at 39 Forest Ave.
- $600,000 for new public restrooms (the Ray amendment would have doubled that amount).
- $555,000 for the Portland Water District water main project on Concord Street, which the Snyder amendment eliminated.
- $1 million to address child care needs. While the city didn’t receive many specific proposals for this, it allocated the funding with plans to continue searching for ways to address the need for child care.
- $475,000 to improve the ventilation system at the James A. Banks Sr. Exposition Building.
— Colin Ellis