Portland councilors send 5 initiatives to November ballot

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The Portland City Council on Monday placed five proposed citizen initiatives on the Nov. 8 municipal ballot.

Four of the five came from the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. They would raise the minimum wage to $18 per hour; reduce the number of short-term rentals in the city and tighten rules governing such rentals; strengthen tenants’ rights, and restrict the number of people who can disembark each day from cruise ships.

Seal of the city of portlandThe council had three possible courses of action: send the questions to voters, come up with competing initiatives, or adopt them.

After Councilor Andrew Zarro proposed adopting the cruise ship restriction, his colleagues decided it should be discussed by the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, which Zarro chairs.

Zarro’s proposal needed seven votes to be immediately considered as an emergency action. The vote to do that was 6-3, with Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilors Tae Chong and Mark Dion opposed. It will return to the council on Sept. 1, which is also when councilors will conduct a public hearing on the referendum initiatives recommended by the Charter Commission.

Ultimately, councilors voted unanimously to send each of the five proposals to voters this fall.

The wage proposal would raise the hourly minimum wage for workers in Portland to $18 by 2025. Currently, the minimum wage is $13 per hour, but it is scheduled to rise to $15 by 2024. The new proposal would also eliminate the sub-minimum wage – the reduced hourly wage allowed for tipped workers.

The DSA’s tenants’ rights proposal would require a 90-day notice for lease terminations or rent increases; discourage no-cause evictions; limit deposits to one month’s rent; prohibit application fees; limit the standard annual rent increase that landlords can impose, and set a $25,000 condominium conversion fee. It would also propose various technical changes and corrections to the city’s rent ordinance to make it more easily understood, and provide clarity and authority to the Rent Board.

For short-term rentals, the DSA’s proposal would restrict all such rentals to only those that are owner-occupied, tenant-occupied, or in a two-unit building also occupied by the owner. It would increase the annual fee for owner-occupied rentals to $250 and non-owner-occupied rentals to $750; require the city clerk to notify all residents within 500 feet of a short-term rental; increase penalties for violations; require complaints against rentals to be logged, and allow the city to revoke registrations.

The DSA’s final proposal would limit to 1,000-per-day by 2025 the number of passengers who could disembark from cruise ships.

The fifth proposal, from short-term rental landlord Scott Ferris, would prohibit corporations and non-local owners from operating short-term rentals; prohibit evictions for the purpose of immediate conversion to short-term rentals, and increase penalties for violations of existing city regulations of short-term rentals.

Resident Riley Musgrave spoke in favor of the DSA’s proposal for short-term rentals, saying landlords had “more power than ever” over renters.

“I’ve never seen a landlord having to beg for money,” Musgrave said.

Others spoke out against the proposals. Steven DiMillo, owner of DiMillo’s on the Water, said the city should eliminate the term “sub-minimum wage” from the proposal, because it doesn’t properly reflect what people earn. At his restaurant, he said, tipped workers often earn $27-$60 per hour, and they don’t want that to change.

He said the proposal if passed, would force restaurants to cut jobs.

“I’m concerned the voters are uninformed and overwhelmed by 13 referendum questions coming up in November,” DiMillo said.

Deadline extended for projects seeking ARPA funds

Portland has extended the deadline for pre-applications for the second round of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.

While initially slated for Aug. 5, the new deadline for the process is Aug. 19 at 4 p.m. Just over $11.2 million is expected to be available for businesses, nonprofit organizations, and government organizations.

The city approved 19 projects after the first round of applications last November. Around $14 million was allocated for programs including new public restrooms, mental health support, and grants for small businesses and child care providers.

City officials have previously outlined what kinds of projects are most likely to receive this federal funding, ranging from response to public health emergencies created by the COVID-19 pandemic, providing premium pay for essential work, to replacing lost revenue.

Within those categories, grants for small businesses, speeding up the recovery of the hospitality industry, and improving public infrastructure were all recommended by the U.S. Treasury Department.

The federal government advised against using these funds for recurring costs, such as staff salaries.

The city is collecting responses to a community survey on how these funds should be used. The survey, likely to run through mid-August, is available on the city’s website at www.portlandmaine.gov/ARPA. Results of the survey will be discussed by the Finance Committee and City Council later this summer.

The city received more than $46 million in ARPA funding in two installments. Nearly $9 million was used to offset revenue losses sustained during the early days of the pandemic. The city also used $2 million of the remaining funds this spring to offset a $2 million budget shortfall.

Portland has to allocate the funds by Dec. 31, 2024, and spend them by Dec. 31, 2026.

— Colin Ellis

Monkeypox rash
An example of monkeypox rash. (Courtesy U.S. CDC/NHS England High Consequence Infectious Diseases Network)

Public clinic to administer monkeypox vaccine

Portland city staff is working with local partners and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure the city is prepared to handle the monkeypox emergency.

While there are no known cases in Cumberland County, monkeypox has been declared a national emergency and several states have declared their own states of emergency.

The City Council received a communication on Monday night that outlined staff efforts.

The emergency preparedness plan calls for isolation precautions for those in emergency shelters who show signs of the illness, and providing personal protective gear to staff and “environmental decontamination guidance” for laundry if someone is suspected of having the disease.

The communication said the Maine CDC began supplying vaccines last week. The city’s Sexually Transmitted Disease Clinic at 39 Forest Ave. is organizing vaccine clinics, and Maine CDC nurses have been administering doses of the vaccine. A limited number of vaccine doses are expected each week.

Staff screen eligible candidates using CDC criteria. Those who are approved will be put on a waiting list and contacted when the vaccine is available. There are currently 40 people on the waiting list.

So far, one person has received the vaccine at the health clinic.

Monkeypox, which has infected more than 6,600 people across the country, was declared a national public health crisis last week by the Biden administration. The World Health Organization declared the virus a public health emergency of international concern last month.

Maine’s first case of monkeypox was identified in late July, in a person in York County. Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said while that was the first case, his agency had been preparing for “several weeks” given the scale of the international outbreak.

Maine has received the vaccine, Jynneos, from the federal government. The first allotment was enough for more than 300 individuals to get vaccinated.

Monkeypox is considered a rare disease that is caused by infection from the virus and is part of the smallpox family. Transmission usually occurs by close interaction with a symptomatic person – skin-to-skin or sexual contact. It can cause rashes or pimple-like breakouts and is sometimes preceded by flu-like symptoms.

While it can be painful, itchy, and disfiguring during its duration, it is considered rarely fatal.

— Colin Ellis