‘The reality on the ground has changed’: Portland council delays action on emergency

The wait means hazard pay will take effect Jan. 1; councilors on Jan. 3 will also revisit the debate over a mask mandate

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The Portland City Council Monday night postponed action that would have repealed the city’s pandemic state of emergency.

Councilors will revisit the question on Jan. 3, 2022, when they will also take another look at a possible citywide mask mandate.

In the meantime, employees in the city who receive minimum wage will see their pay increase 1.5 times on Jan. 1 – to $19.50 per hour – thanks to the city’s new hazard pay ordinance.

Most of the 5 1/2-hour meeting – the council’s final meeting of 2021 – was spent discussing the state of emergency and the efforts by some councilors to reconsider the mask mandate, which the council rejected in October. 

The mandate was not on the agenda, but Councilor Victoria Pelletier said she would make a motion from the floor if necessary.

That opened the discussion to the public, and more than a dozen people urged the council to adopt the mandate. In addition, nearly 20 said councilors should keep the state of emergency in place, given the surge in coronavirus cases.

Charter Commissioner Catherine Buxton said Maine has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 transmission in the country, so Portland should return to prior restrictions.

“We used the tools recommended by public health officials to keep the infection rates down, and we need to go back to what worked,” she said.

Briana Volk, co-owner of Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, said her restaurant requires people to wear masks and be vaccinated if they want to come inside, and they have not experienced a single COVID-19 case. She said while bars and restaurants might not be essential, their workers don’t have a choice and need their jobs.

However, Steven DiMillo, owner of DiMillo’s on the Water, said maintaining a state of emergency would hurt businesses because it will trigger the hazard pay ordinance approved by voters in November 2020 and later affirmed by courts. The hazard pay requirement, and an increase in the minimum wage to $13 per hour, both take effect Jan. 1.

DiMillo said his restaurant’s payroll would increase by $168,000.

“I do believe there’s eventually a limit to what people will pay for a bowl of chowder and a beer, and we can’t increase prices anymore,” he said.

Eventually, there was a successful move to postpone the decision and add an amendment about the mask mandate. The final vote for the postponement was 6-3, with Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilors Tae Chong and Mark Dion opposed.

Although city staff had said repealing the emergency order was simply about allowing the council to return to in-person meetings – because the state of emergency expressly forbids those meetings – several councilors and members of the public said it is a larger public health issue, given the rise of the Omicron variant and the staggering number of new daily COVID-19 cases.

Pelletier said she struggled to see how, at a time when hospitals are full and cases are surging, councilors could justify saying they are no longer in a state of emergency. She said the state of emergency should remain in place for at least another 30 days to get through the holiday season.

“If we have people calling in saying they don’t feel safe in the city, I think we’re still in a state of emergency,” Pelletier said.

While other councilors and staff argued the state had lifted its emergency in May, Councilor Pious Ali noted Gov. Janet Mills recently activated the National Guard to help hospitals deal with the virus. He said he didn’t think this is the time to return to in-person meetings, even though just a few weeks ago he admitted he was one of the councilors asking about returning to City Hall.

“The reality on the ground has changed,” Ali said. “I don’t want to meet in person today. I don’t want to meet in person tomorrow.”

Pelletier ultimately did not move for the mask mandate, and Snyder said it would be better to have that discussion with a fully formed amendment that appears on the agenda. That would allow the public to weigh in when they know it will be there, she said, and also to give the council more time to consider and debate it.

Some business owners who spoke during the meeting suggested a mandate might apply only to essential businesses, such as grocery stores, while optional businesses, like bars and restaurants, could be exempt. Gyms and health clubs previously sought exemption when the council last discussed the mandate.

The initial plan to repeal the emergency order surfaced in November, with councilors hoping to return to in-person meetings in time for the Dec. 6 inauguration. But city staff advised the council to target the Jan. 3 meeting after voting Dec. 20 on repeal of the state of emergency.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder

Mayor: City faces ‘critical’ staff shortage

Mayor Kate Snyder highlighted achievements tempered by coronavirus challenges in her annual State of the City address on Monday.

Snyder said the city faces significant staffing shortages as it copes with the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, which will enter its third year in March.

The city has 183 open positions, including several department heads, which Snyder called a “critical” shortage that the city has never seen before.

The situation has placed added strain on remaining staff, who must not only perform normal day-to-day operations, but also have to implement new measures such as a marijuana ordinance and the city’s Green New Deal and One Climate Future plan.

“Our city will need to develop solutions to address the labor needs,” Snyder said, adding these vacancies will have a significant impact on the budgeting process going forward.

The mayor said COVID-19 “is our reality and our context.” She said too many people in Maine have chosen not to be vaccinated, which – despite the city’s high vaccination rate – puts added pressure on Portland as a health-care hub. 

“We navigate how to do policymaking with things beyond our control,” Snyder said.

Snyder praised the city’s Planning Board for approving more than 900 units of new housing in 2021, including 845 as rentals. She said housing takes time, and the Planning Board is just one step.

She acknowledged Portland is an expensive place to build but said the city does have tools, such as available funding from tax increment financing districts and the Jill C. Duson Housing Trust Fund, to entice projects to be built in the city.

Snyder also addressed the overdue citywide property revaluation that occurred last spring, which resulted in some property values and tax bills skyrocketing. All told, the city saw an increase of some $6 billion in valuation. Snyder said the city was committed to much more frequent revaluations because the 15-year gap this time created more inequity.

She said she is proud of the work the city has done to address homelessness, with the Health and Human Services Department housing an average of 950 people each night at the Oxford Street Shelter, various family shelters, and contracted hotels. The past year saw record numbers of people seeking shelter, Snyder said, boosted in part by the number of asylum seekers entering the city, and she praised the final approval of a 208-bed emergency services center to be built on Riverside Street. 

She also repeated a message from interim City Manager Danielle West about how the city will implement the 33 recommendations that came from the former Racial Equity Steering Committee. The City Council will consider creating a department of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Snyder said, whose first task will be addressing the recommendations that came from the committee’s report.

— Colin Ellis

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