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Federal Grants, Draft Budget, and Has Anyone Met the Peaks Island Lions Club? – City Council Review 4/8/2024

While much of Maine was congregating in the interior and north of the state to witness the rare total solar eclipse, Portland’s City Council met on Monday April 8th to finalize the list of federal grant recipients among Portland’s many nonprofits, refer the City Manager’s draft budget to committee, and dispose of a wide variety of minor obligations.

After the routine Pledge of Allegiance and roll call, Mayor Dion announced that the council meeting would be a hybrid meeting, in which both public and city officials are invited to participate either in-person or by Zoom. Once the pandemic-era standard, hybrid meetings were all but abandoned following a rash of Zoom-bombing incidents several months ago. This night’s hybrid meeting was so held because Councilor Pelletier could only attend by Zoom, (though she never actually spoke that evening,) while all other councilors were present. As always, the meeting opened by inviting members of the public, whether physically or virtually present, to comment on items not on the night’s agenda.

General Public Comment

First to speak in chambers was meeting regular Steven Scharf, who first shared that he had seen a group of “homeless people” in the area designated against their “hanging out” in Deering Oaks park earlier that day, and hoped that the city government would prevent large-scale loitering in the park for everyone’s safety. Scharf also shared that while walking in Monument Square, he was nearly run over by a reckless delivery driver who had driven onto the sidewalk to pick up orders. He recommended strengthening rules for cars on the square, saying “it’s not intended to be a place you drive on.”

Richard Ward, perennially unsuccessful candidate for various city offices, called in by Zoom to speak out against anti-white violence. “I will accept the label of ‘Nazi,’” Ward claimed during his statement.

Another meeting regular, George Rheault, stepped up to the podium to comment on Planning Director Christine Grimando’s forthcoming departure. Rheault expressed doubts that the council had seriously considered the actions of the city’s Planning Department, particularly its Historic Preservation division, which had not resisted bad actors “weaponizing our regulatory apparatus” to prevent new projects. He specifically cited the delay in the Portland Museum of Art’s plan to demolish one of its buildings and erect a larger, more modern wing. “They bungled it… It’s been a clown show.” Rheault expressed hope that whoever replaces Ms. Grimando represents a change in direction.

Disclosure: The author is a member of the Historic Preservation Board, and joined the unanimous decision to not revoke the building in question’s “contributing” status.

Paul Tiemens, professor at University of Southern Maine, next spoke at the podium. He urged the councilors to stop all homeless encampment sweeps until “a more accessible shelter than the one at Riverside Drive is available, one that’s closer to the downtown.” While he acknowledged that the Homeless Services Center (HSC) is “technically in Portland, it’s too far for some to feel comfortable with.” He urged the council to show “compassion” and find solutions other than sweeps for homeless camps.

With no other hands on Zoom or in chambers, Mayor called the general comment to a close.

Proclamations and Announcements

Councilor Ali read Proclamation 18, recognizing April 2024 as Arab American Heritage Month. He noted the various benefits which Arab immigrants have brought to Maine and to America as a whole. Two women approached the rail to receive the written proclamation, but weren’t identified.

Mayor Dion had the City Clerk also read into the record a recognition of April 8-12, 2024 as “Telecommunicator Appreciator Week.” Councilor Phillips also briefly recognized April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Councilor Ali next shared that he had, the previous weekend, attended an awards ceremony for firefighters in Portland, honoring those who had gone above and beyond the standard of duty. He publicly thanked all firefighters, especially those so honored, for their service.


A relatively long queue of business licenses were reviewed and approved, all unanimously and with little-to-no comment or discussion.

Low Key was approved for a Class X Lounge license at 89 Congress Street, the former location of Blue Spoon. Bar Publica was likewise approved for a Class A Restaurant/Lounge license with Outdoor Dining at 82 Hanover Street, the former location of The Yard.

Novel, a “book bar” for reading and drinking at 643 Congress Street, was approved for adding outdoor dining. Baba’s, a new restaurant, was approved as a Class I food service establishment at 79 Island Avenue, the former site of Sweet Creamery. Councilor Bullett took an extra moment to thank the owners of this new project, who had come to chambers from Peaks Island, and to celebrate women-owned businesses.

Lucky Cheetah was approved as a Class I food service establishment at 11 Moulton Street, which had previously been Old Port Tavern. Councilor Phillips thanked and wished well the owners of Lucky Cheetah, who she shared were family friends with her. Porttown Public House, which already operates at 123 Commercial Street, was approved for outdoor dining, as was Thistle & Grouse at 10 Cotton Street.

Finally, Duckfat received new Class III and IV food service establishment licenses (with outdoor dining) to accommodate a change in ownership. The well-known restaurant will continue to operate at 43 Middle Street.

Community Development Block Grants

An unusual resolution, which in fact operates more as a typical order, was Resolution 8, which would adopt the new fiscal year’s “Annual Action Plan.” This plan allocates Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), HOME program funds, and other federal monies to a variety of nonprofit applicants providing social services. This resolution requires two “reads.” The first had been at the previous meeting, during which successful applicants took turns thanking the Council while failed applicants each pleaded for reconsideration. The night of April 8th proved little different.

Councilor Bullett recused herself for a conflict of interest. The proposed allocations from the CDBG Committee and the City Manager can be found here. Among the approved recipients were Preble Street, HopeActs, the Quality Housing Coalition, and Milestone Recovery, while those with denied projects include Preble Street, (which had multiple applications,) Catholic Charities, Through These Doors, and Furniture Friends.

It was also announced that Councilor Phillips had prepared an amendment to the proposed plan, which would re-allocate $57,000 in funds to Through These Doors, a domestic abuse shelter which had previously been denied funds. At the previous meeting, a representative of TTD had warned that without approval of funds, they’d be forced to shut down their operations. This $57,000 was amassed by shaving a small portion of approved funds from most of the other approved recipients. Phillips tearfully stressed the importance of maintaining at least one domestic abuse resource for women in Portland.

Public Comments

Mayor Dion called for public comment on the plan, and the first to approach the podium was Libby Catania of Our Place Portland, an organization providing “high-quality community-based programming” for youth and families. OPP had been approved for funds under the initial proposal, and was one of the just two applicants to be left whole by Councilor Phillips’ amendment. She shared some of the successes of her organization, but did not otherwise make any request or message to the council.

Jen LaChance, Director of Advocacy at Through These Doors, called in by Zoom to thank Councilor Phillips for her amendment and urge the rest of the council to approve their funding. She elaborated the emergency services they provide to women and families in desperate straits, and warned again of the dire consequences should they fail to receive funding and be forced to close operations.

Fayla Sutton, another employee of Our Place Portland, stepped forward to similarly explain the various programs which their organization provide, such as helping asylum seeker families.

Michelle Lamb next called in by Zoom, representing Greater Portland Family Promise. GPFP had been approved for full funding in the original recommendation, but under Councilor Phillips’ amendment would receive just $83,600 of their requested $93,600 for their housing navigation program. Lamb pleaded with the council to approve the original full amount, so that they can continue with their work in serving “100% asylum seeking families,” as opposed to domestic homeless clients. Lamb claimed the “increased numbers of families arriving” required the organization to grow, (they served 311 asylum seekers in 2023 and hope to serve over 400 this year,) and to receive more funding from the CDBG program.

GPFP needs the original total, Lamb continued, for their mission to find housing for asylum seekers and “support them in their new homes,” which includes explaining to asylum seekers how to pay rent and apply for General Assistance funds. “Every day for the past two weeks we’ve had 1-2 [asylum seeker] families arrive at our doorstep, and we’ve had 30 referrals in the past month alone.” She shared that GPFP is currently sheltering nine asylum seeker families at Williston-Immanuel Church, in addition to 149 individuals at Portland’s family shelter, 157 being put up at Motel 6, over 68 at the YMCA, and at least three families at State Street Church. “After tonight there will not be a single open bed for any family to arrive in Portland.”

Jim Hall next called in by Zoom, and spent most of his time complimenting the CDBG committee and city staff for the thorough work they’ve done in the process, especially in encouraging new applicants. He then, however, criticized Councilor Phillips’ amendment, intimating that the late addition of the amendment to the agenda constituted an evasion of the public process, while the cuts imposed on the organizations affected could be back-breaking for already-strained NGOs.

Martha Stein stepped up to the podium representing HopeActs, a nonprofit also dedicated to helping newly-arrived immigrants claiming asylum. HopeActs’ programs had been only partially funded under the City Manager’s recommendations, and this figure would be further cut by the Phillips Amendment. “HopeActs housed over 300 asylum seekers this year,” she began, “we also conducted thousands of client meetings all geared at keeping people housed.” While Stein was grateful for the partial funding, she said she was “shocked” by her organization’s relatively poor scoring by the CDBG committee, and claimed that the rubrics had obviously not been designed with asylum seekers in mind. She also attributed the poor score to one reviewer in particular, “It’s like I got an A or A+ from all the other reviewers, and I got an F from one.” She asked for her funding not to be further cut by Phillips’ amendment.

Council Discussion

Councilor Sykes opened the debate on both the underlying resolution and Phillips’ proposed amendments, sharing that she was uncomfortable with how the amendment took even more funding away from HopeActs when that nonprofit hadn’t even been approved for full funding in the first place. She proposed distributing HopeActs’ contribution to Through These Doors equally among all other applicants, further taking from them but restoring HopeActs to the original partial funding.

Councilor Phillips reacted with approval; Sykes’ rationale for not further defunding HopeActs made sense to her, and regardless, her only real priority was seeing that Through These Doors received some funding, regardless of the details of its provenance. Rodriguez also offered his support for Phillips’ amendment as altered by Sykes. Councilor Fournier expressed regret that “we have to pit everyone, essentially, against each other,” and urged city staff to seek out new avenues for federal grants, but ultimately signaled her consent to the Sykes-Phillips adjustments.

Staff members and Councilor Sykes took a moment to work out the exact figures her adjustment would produce, (amusingly, two dollars was left over and ultimately was directed towards Through These Doors.) Mayor Dion finally broke his own silence on the subject, announcing that he would not support Phillips’ amendment. He emphasized the need to support and respect the committee process, a difficult and competitive review performed by citizens in which “not everyone gets a trophy.” Emphasizing the necessity of consistency and credibility with its partners, he asked the city’s representatives to stick to the original proposal. “There are those who are going to feel we pulled a fast one.”

Councilor Ali asked the City Manager and Corporation Counsel to elaborate on the process by which these funds are allocated; Manager West explained that the CDBG committee thoroughly reviews the applicants and makes its recommendations, she and her department review those recommendations and make any adjustments they feel are necessary, and then the City Council has the final say in amending and approving the whole package by their sole discretion.

Springing off of this discussion, Councilor Phillips respectfully dissented against the Mayor’s characterization of her amendment as a deviation from process. “This is the process,” she stated, “we do have the authority to change the allocations.” She defended the basis of her amendment, stressing the importance of funding the only such domestic violence organization in the city. “Let’s fund them.” Mayor Dion replied to this rebuke by saying – though it may be legal – it is bad business practice.

Moving to a vote, the Phillips-Sykes amendment passed 8-1, with only the mayor voting against. After a brief comment from Councilor Rodriguez sharing his belief that funding many good projects, even if not fully, was worthwhile, the amended resolution passed unanimously.

Referral of the Budget

Once that vote was taken, the Mayor moved to consider an item scheduled for later in the agenda immediately: the referral of the City Manager’s $353 million recommended budget to the Finance Committee for review. The third budget draft which Manager West has prepared for the council, and the first as permanent City Manager, West explained the various fiscal challenges which the city faced, risking a budget shortfall “50% worse than last year.” At the beginning of the process, the necessary tax increase was estimated at a whopping 16%, but through a series of difficult decisions regarding department cuts, requests for state assistance, and fee increases, she now presented a proposed tax increase of just 4.9%.

The City Manager’s memo can be found here.

The single most significant challenge which the Manager and her staff had to contend with was General Assistance (GA), the social services fund which had ballooned in cost in response to the influx of dependent immigrants and other homeless claimants of the monies. According to Manager West, the city had nearly doubled the number of city-operated shelter beds (to a total of 583) in the last fiscal year, including a new 179-bed shelter specifically for asylum seekers. Despite the city’s efforts to find less expensive arrangements, the city also continues to pay for many asylum seekers and other homeless individuals to stay in hotels around Maine.

While all other departments saw single-digit percentage increases, Social Services (of which GA is a part,) saw a 58.2% increase in expenditures since last year, and a 137.2% increase since just FY2020.

In previous years, Manager West explained, it was necessary for the state to provide one-time windfall payments to the city to avoid drastic tax raises, and this would again be counted on for this budget cycle. Since GA is an obligation the state forces its municipalities to provide, Augusta has felt it appropriate to bail out the city’s budget shortfall in light of the massive proliferation of GA claimants in Portland. With the budgets of other departments held nearly flat, this state money enables the city’s taxpayers to expect only the modest 4.9% increase which Manager West proposes. She expects the council to vote on the budget in May.

Mayor Dion offered brief thoughts on the successes of the city’s departments collaborating to create the best draft budgets possible, and warned against an overly adversarial attitude towards the process. Dion kept his comments on the meat of the budget to just one issue: GA. Commenting on the need for one-time cash infusions from Augusta, he remarked that the city’s lobbyists have “gone up there to fight for a restructuring,” such that the city can receive these funds reliably every year “without going through the lobbying process and all of the sausage-making that’s required.” The mayor also explained that due to the huge costs, housing asylum seekers and other homeless individuals in hotels would no longer be considered standard practice going forward, and thanked many state-level legislators have been key in ensuring Portland receives the help it needs from the state.

The proposed budget was unanimously referred to the Finance Committee.

Unfinished Business

After a ten-minute recess, the council regrouped to hear a number of minor orders. First was Order 151, accepting and appropriating a $64,000 grant from the Maine Department of Transportation for a cycling and pedestrian program on Forest Avenue. The money, which is matched with $16,000 in local funds, would go towards designing “enhanced pedestrian crossings” on a street with many points identified as “High Crash Locations” by the state DOT.

Steven Scharf, member of (but not speaking on behalf of) the Portland Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PBPAC), supported the effort but expressed some concerns about the design choices. He recommended that PBPAC be consulted in several of the details. Councilor Sykes expressed excitement for the plan, and Councilor Bullett noted that the Portland Housing Authority (PHA) ought to also be included in discussions, which Mayor Dion confirmed would happen.

The order passed unanimously.

Next, Order 152 similarly concerned an agreement between the Maine DOT and Portland to “mill and fill” Riverside Street, Ocean Avenue and Washington Avenue. This would update some water and sewage infrastructure while ensuring the pedestrian infrastructure on these streets meets ADA requirements for people with disabilities. In exchange for more than $1.1mm of state DOT funds, the city would be obligated to pay for its $391,750 share, plus an additional $106,200 for manhole adjustments.

Once more Mr. Scharf stepped forward to comment, warning the council that manhole adjustments like the ones being proposed here had been bungled by city crews in the past. Councilor Sykes pointed out a provision of the agreement stating “MDOT does not need to comply with local ordinances, including the noise ordinance.” She asked why this provision was included, when many municipal ordinances are concerned with safety and other important issues. Mike Murray, Portland’s Director of Public Works, answered this frankly with “Well, it depends if we want the state funding or not.” Corporation Counsel offered a somewhat more nuanced position, but ultimately reached the same conclusion, explaining that the city had little power over the state’s operations.

Councilor Sykes was unsatisfied by this result, and brought up the safety and labor regulations which the city enacted by referendum in the “Green New Deal,” sponsored by the Maine Democratic Socialists of America. She did ultimately stand down on the issue for tonight, but signaled that she’d like to learn more about the issue from staff.

The order passed unanimously as an emergency.

Greenwoods Garden Debacle

Order 153 was considered next, approving a $9,153 grant from the state through the city to the Lions Club of Peaks Island. This money would be used for the completion of a “condition assessment” of the Greenwood Garden Playhouse on the island. Opening the floor to public comment, George Rheault stepped forward.

Rheault first denigrated the idea of spending government money to help the Peaks Island groups in preserving a “little barn,” and then noted that despite the order being for the approval of a contract – no such contract had been provided to the council or the public. He then produced records showing there were two separate legal entities both called the “Lions Club of Peaks Island”, and remarked on how curious it was that the club in question didn’t even have a website. What’s more, Rheault continued, any group which owned acres of highly-desirable and expensive waterfront property on Portland’s most attractive island surely does not need any handouts from the government, especially for a structure of such dubious historic character. Closing his comments, Rheault noted that the group hosts “high-priced weddings” at the location, producing significant amounts of revenue, all while depriving most Portlanders access to the site. “I’m confused why they need any money at all from the rest of us.”

Mayor Dion was evidently impressed by Rheault’s comment. “Staff, do you have any answers for these questions? Because I surely don’t.” Evan Schueckler, program manager for Historic Preservation in Portland, offered some basic details, but couldn’t provide much to alleviate Mr. Rheault’s and the Mayor’s concerns. Dion asked Schueckler whether any information had been provided as to the membership of the chapter, to which he replied “No.” “Are you aware if they actually engage in any community activity on the island?” the mayor further pressed. “I have not studied their books or anything like that,” Schueckler replied, “no.”

Councilor Bullett raised her own concerns, noting the conspicuous lack of information in the agenda packet. She suggested tabling the motion until more information could be furnished, to which Mayor Dion agreed. “It’s a reasonable response to make sure there’s flesh and blood behind the paperwork.” The order was unanimously postponed.

Final Items

After the sudden derailment of the previous Historic Preservation grant, the next item (which also was a Historic Preservation grant) spurred Mayor Dion to rib Mr. Schueckler to not “be gunshy” in introducing it. He wasn’t, explaining that Order 154 was a similar $15,000 pass-through grant to First Parish Church, necessary for completing their own condition assessment. First Parish Church, a much more familiar and prominent institution than the “Lion’s Club of Peaks Island,” did not raise the same alarm among the public or council. No comments or discussion ensued, and the grant was approved unanimously.

Order 155, sponsored by the Sustainability and Transportation Committee, would remove time limited parking on Kenwood Street. Committee Chair Phillips explained that currently Kenwood Street has 1-hour parking limits. This had originally been a response to the use of the street by USM students, but now that USM has a new parking garage which its students use, the committee reasoned that the parking spots should revert to a less-restricted use.

George Rheault, in his comment, noted that the referenced parking garage had been a $23 million investment, sarcastically thanking the educational institution for “opening their wallets” for the residents of Kenwood Street. Rheault intimated that said Kenwood residents, which include among others a former mayor and former city councilor, used their outsized political influence to induce serious spending on the part of government and university all to recover more flexibility for their parking spaces. No other comment or discussion was made, and the order passed unanimously.

The final item for the night was Order 156, dissolving the virtually defunct Rental Housing Advisory Committee. A more thorough memorandum explaining the history and failures of this now-redundant committee can be found here. George Rheault, in a comment, contested some of the assertions in this memo, but did not dissent from the clear conclusion that the RHAC has no reason to exist. He suggested that the sclerotic failure of the committee to outline moderate reforms, stymied by conservative elements, ultimately led the city to adapt the “really terrible policies” of the “Green New Deal” and other DSA referenda out of frustration.

Councilor Phillips echoed many of Rheault’s comments, also condemning the cheapness and laxity of the effort from previous city administrations. Councilor Ali, the longest-serving councilor on the dais, likewise lamented the lost opportunity which the RHAC represents. Councilor Sykes joined the chorus of condemnations, and agreed with Rheault that the committee’s failures led directly to the DSA’s referendum campaigns, (but unlike Rheault considered the DSA’s legislation to be a good thing.)

The order passed unanimously, and the council swiftly adjourned afterwards.

Ashley D. KeenanAshley is an editor of the Portland Townsman, with work focusing on the mechanics of local government and housing policy, and also a member of Portland’s Historic Preservation Board. You can reach Ashley personally at


  1. AB- North Deering AB- North Deering

    Thanks for doing this. These summaries are great.

  2. Laura Robinson Laura Robinson

    yes, thank you.

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