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Who Gets Grants and What Doesn’t – City Council Review 3/18/2024

On Monday, March 18th, the City Council discussed and disbursed tens of millions of dollars’ worth of grants, funds, subsidies, improvements, and more. These plans, all separate from the general budget process, included CDBG funds for community services, FAA grants for the Portland Jetport, Capital Improvement Plan authorizations for infrastructure and maintenance, and a new application process for affordable housing programs. Not every grant applicant was a winner, however, and many more – including one Councilor – were frustrated with the opacity of city spending.

Nearly forgetting to do so, Mayor Dion first opened the floor to public comments not on the night’s agenda. This routine part of the agenda featured a notably hefty discussion of issues.

General Public Comment

Greg Gould spoke first, drawing the room’s attention to LD 1975, a state bill under consideration in Augusta which would “decriminalize fentanyl and methamphetamine in the state of Maine.” While he supported treatment instead of incarceration, he was concerned about the impacts the bill could have on Portland. “I’m wondering if we have a plan for what that would do to the city if this passes.” He asked the council to direct their legislature liaisons to explore the potential ramifications.

Steven Scharf, regular commenter and amateur parliamentarian, next offered a brief comment. He urged Mayor Dion to remind  city councilors of their “duty” to be present at all city council meetings; he intimated that several city councilors planned to be absent for future meetings, believing “a ‘special event’ exempts them.” This appears to be a reference to the total solar eclipse occurring on Monday April 8th. This rare astronomical event, the first one in Maine since 1963, sparked controversy at the last city council meeting, when Councilor Sykes led a failed effort to postpone the council’s meeting to observe the event.

Bill Weber spoke next, representing the “Portland Climate Action Team” associated with the Sierra Club. He vocally opposed the proposed Gotham Connector, a new highway project from the Maine Turnpike Authority (MTA) which would link I-95 to the Gorham Bypass. He brought up the fact that at the state level, the MTA has been hammering away at this plan, while GPCOG and other state authorities have been working towards a new Bus Rapid Transit system with a similar area of focus. “We have two vastly different approaches which are running in parallel, aiming towards the same goal, and I think that’s insane.” He called the proposed highway too expensive and “hazardous” to the environment.

Zack Barowitz, former Charter Commissioner and member of the Portland Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PBPAC), made a handful of discrete points. He first noted that PBPAC had conducted a walk audit at the Homeless Services Center, and that a report would be forthcoming. He also raised concerns about Portland’s fire boat response time. Referencing his work on the Charter Commission, Barowitz noted that the City Council, when implementing the Commission’s mandated ethics reforms, should only allow for personal complaints against department heads and elected officials, rather than “rank-and-file officers.” Finally, he suggested that the council change its policy regarding public comment at council workshops, calling the current ban on public input “backwards and counterproductive.” He continued, “Public comment is most important at workshops, because that’s when you’re collecting information!”

Brittany Peats, mother of children in Portland’s Public School system, responded to the recently announced draft school budget, calling it well-executed and “strategic” but pleading with the Council to not allow any diminishment of funding. “This is the baseline which we need,” she said.

Regular feature, George Rheault, next approached the podium, first explaining that his written comments regarding the Capital Improvement Plan approvals were not in the packet despite his submitting them on time. He spent the rest of his time, however, lamenting the sorry state of the city’s media capacity and transparency. He noted that despite budget increases for the relevant departments, “technology continues to be flubbed day-by-day.” He recalled several board and committee meetings which failed to record or stream, despite their obligations to do so. “We are practically a half-billion-dollar enterprise, and we can’t figure out Zoom? We can’t train our rank-and-file employees how to troubleshoot and fix things? That is not confidence, that is not a high-performance city. Does it mean we have to hire another $160,000 employee to figure this stuff out?”

After this slate of substantive comments, Mayor Dion called the period to a close.

Recognitions and Licenses

After several false starts, the Mayor invited Councilor Phillips to recognize Maine Flag Company for ten years in business. She recounted a brief anecdote in which she found herself in the company’s store for the first time recently and, by happenstance, she heard that they were approaching ten years in business. Phillips noted  “It’s really hard to do business in the city of Portland,” and that “I’m from Portland, and I’ve seen businesses come in and out.” She briefly reviewed the flag company’s history, producing traditional maritime flags and playing a key role in the movement of renewed interest in Maine’s original 1901 flag.

After this, three licenses were quickly approved unanimously, without any public comment and without any council discussion. Rocket Skates, LLC will be opening a Class A lounge called “The End” at 229B Congress Street, the former site of Dirty Dove. “Another Round” was approved for an auditorium license at 549 Congress Street, the former site of the Portland Downtown office. Finally, Off Track Pizza will be opening as a restaurant and lounge at 15 Exchange Street, the former location of Lupita’s.

Community Development Block Grants

Next, the council took up Resolution 8, concerning adoption of several community programs. Portland’s Annual Action Plan contains appropriations of money to a variety of grant applicants, notably disbursing Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and other one-time windfalls. Groups can apply for this money, most of which comes from the federal government, then the city’s CDBG Annual Allocation Committee reviews these applications and recommends to the City Council programs worth of funding.

Janis Hastings, Vice Chair of this committee, recounted the process by which they had conducted these reviews. Applications were due November 20th, and the eight committee members thoroughly read and reviewed each one. Meeting eight times from December to February, they interrogated and discussed the proposals in detail, deciding which of the more than 20 projects to fund. She explained that $1.3 million more was requested of the funds than was available. “Clearly the need for CDBG funds exceeds what’s available, and it was incredibly difficult to [deny] compelling and really well-done applications.”

Hastings briefly provided an overview of the programs which were recommended, which included two public works projects, two parks and recreation projects, one community service project, and seven social services programs, with one of those seven being recommended for only partial funding.  More information about the recommended programs can be found here. She lastly added that this year, greater emphasis was placed on funding programs which had been previously passed over, and as a result one of the recommended projects was from an applicant who’d never received funds before.

This resolution, the only one for the night, was an unusual example of a resolution, which are usually simple statements of policy or preference by the body. Mayor Dion therefore announced that public comment would be taken on this item, despite usually not taking comments on either first-reads or resolutions, let alone a first-read resolution like this.  

The public comments which followed were almost uniformly one of two types – representatives of approved projects showing appreciation, or representatives of denied projects asking the City Council to reconsider their denial.  

The first, Sadie Stewart, was of the appreciative variety, thanking the city on behalf of Temple Beth-El and the Woodfords-Oakdale Neighborhood Association for approving their sponsored project to improve pedestrian and disability access in said neighborhood.

Steven Scharf, speaking not on his own behalf this time but rather representing the West End Neighborhood Association (WENA), was the first comment appealing for reconsideration. WENA’s sponsored project, a park renovation including a new playground and the “removal of a basketball court and turning it into an ‘aging-in-place’ space”, was only narrowly denied, (“missed by two points,”) and Scharf attested that their submitted written comments had been neglected by the committee, thus hurting their chances. “Hopefully some of you will advocate for the playground and the aging-in-place facility.”

A representative of Through These Doors, a domestic violence shelter, pleaded with the councilors to reconsider their denial. After describing their “community-based domestic violence advocacy services,” especially focused on decreasing barriers for women who might not otherwise seek help, she stated flatly that without further funding, “we will be forced to immediately terminate the work of this project.”

Two spokesmen of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center advocated for their organization to receive funding as well. They emphasized their projects to help “immigrant entrepreneurs” start businesses, connect to “traditional financial opportunities,” access “micro-lending,” and get one-on-one counseling to help “jump-start a business.”

Preble Street, the large homeless services nonprofit, had sponsored multiple applications for grants. Two of these, an emergency food program and the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter, were approved, but money for Preble Street’s adult shelters was denied. Speaking for the organization, Andrew Bove pleaded on behalf of Florence House and Elena’s Way, which are facing a deficit of more than two million dollars. “[Shelters] require investment and support from all sides,” he continued, threatening that 80 people could be turned out onto the streets without this funding.

HopeActs’ application for $125,000 to assist migrants seeking asylum was recommended for only partial funding, to the figure of $87,978.84, and multiple activists urged the City Council to fully fund the program. One employee (who was also an employee of the Quality Housing Coalition, yet another applicant organization,) explained that further funding was necessary to avoid a $37,000 gap in the budget.

Another immigration-focused nonprofit, Catholic Charities, with their immigrant legal advocacy partner ILAP, wasn’t recommended for funding. Representatives for these groups (as well as one from the Maine Immigrants Rights Coalition,) appealed to the Council to fund their programs for lawyers helping immigration cases.

Cullen Ryan, executive from Community Housing of Maine, appealed the denial of his organization’s application as well. Their program, Ashlea’s Place, is focused on helping the most problematic and persistent cases of homelessness, breaking the most severe cycles of harm. To hammer this home, he shared that working from a list of 20 long-term homeless individuals, three had died of overdoses before they could be helped. Since the program’s interventions, however, none of the other 17 had died, and seven had been placed in permanent housing.

The only commenter to speak who wasn’t associated with any applicant group was, naturally, George Rheault. “I wanted to highlight how strange this whole CDBG program is. It’s been strange for a long time, a remnant of the Great Society, but it’s turned into this competitive process where a pretty small amount of money is applied for.” He objected to the high overhead which this process required, and suggested that many of the recommended grants should be locally, not federally, funded. “We’re using the federal government to fix sidewalks and buy playground equipment… [federal funds] should be used to fill holes and gaps, not cover the basics.” He asserted that many of these grants would be better suited as Capital Improvement projects. Rheault described the very high value houses which spangle Great Diamond Island, and wondered whether spending “$700,000 to help them get high-speed internet” is a good use of Capital Improvement funds. “Think of all the things we’re not doing for all the people without million-dollar mansions and beautiful seaside views.”

As this was only a first read of the resolution, once these public comments were finished, Mayor Dion moved on to the next item.

Unfinished Business

Of the night’s orders, first was Order 143, approving and appropriating grants from the Federal Aviation Administration for Portland International Jetport. Paul Bradbury, Airport Director, stepped forward to offer a brief explanation. “This is really exceptional news to have a really uncharacteristically large funding opportunity from the FAA,” he began, attributing the windfall to the bipartisan infrastructure law. The Jetport would receive $24.55 million in FAA funds, a rare opportunity per Bradbury, to make infrastructure improvements for post-pandemic operations. These improvements, which include reconstructing a taxiway and installing new boarding bridges, would “raise the mobility and the availability to better serve our aircraft.” The appropriations would require no resources from taxpayers.

The only commenter, again George Rheault, asked whether the Jetport’s usage of city resources, such as police, was reimbursed to the city. Taking up his question, Mayor Dion clarified with Mr. Bradbury, who explained that yes, “for every central service we receive, we pay our share in a direct payback to that service.” Councilor Ali briefly commented in support, explaining that he was recently invited to the White House where the Portland Jetport was a topic of discussion. The order passed unanimously.

Capital Improvement Plan

The council next took up the Capital Improvement Plan for fiscal year 2025. The CIP, as it’s called, describes those projects paid for by the city which add to the city’s civic estate, as opposed to regular operating expenses, which are governed by the general budget. The recommended projects, which include such various improvements as purchasing new snow blowers, renovating Bramhall Fire Station, and installing lights along Lincoln Park’s walkways, were reviewed and recommended by the Finance Committee and would require a $19.04 million bond issue. The City Manager, in transmitting the plan to the council, was especially proud that the CIP fully covers all school-related maintenance and improvements, and is also tied to an effort of more frequent property evaluations to maximize equity and efficiency.

Councilor Trevorrow, chair of the Finance Committee since Dion’s election to the mayorship, introduced the plan, noting in particular her excitement to see one of the city’s few public pools re-opened, Congress Square Park finished, property assessments made more frequent, and the rapid commencement of shovel-ready projects for the 2024 construction season.

Councilor Bullett, one of the two new councilors elected this past November, had come prepared with an amendment to the CIP. She introduced it, explaining that she felt the CIP was missing several key investments, and noted that the amendment would raise the CIP budget by exactly one million dollars, an amount she felt proportionate (“Any increase in taxes wouldn’t be more than a penny.”) Her proposed additions to the plan included purchasing a new bucket truck (which she joked she’d like to take a ride in,) expanding the ADA compliance program for Portlanders with disabilities, purchasing a new electric ice resurfacer (also known as a Zamboni,) and $290,000 for an Islands Improvement Program.

Taking public comment, George Rheault took no time in criticizing the process by which the city makes decisions about such huge monetary commitments. “This is the biggest day of the year for the City Council,” he declared, urging the Council to seriously consider the millions of dollars at issue and delay a decision if felt necessary. He doubted that the council had “the stomach” to dig into those details, but nevertheless encouraged caution. He also noted the disparity between the smaller amount of cash spent on girls’ softball facilities compared to boys’ games, calling it inequitable.

Eamonn Dundon, representing the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, in stark contrast, urged haste. “We work in seven communities around the region besides Portland… we have seen that all these other communities are moving fast.” He warned that unless swiftly approved, Portland might have to pay significantly more for labor and materials – if they could be obtained at all. He also strongly encouraged the Council to continue their support for the Congress Square Park improvements.

Proving once again his mastery of parliamentary procedure, Steven Scharf stepped up to the podium to inform the Mayor that he had made an error when introducing the CIP orders, and that unless addressed, they’d be at variance with their own procedural rules. Chastened, Mayor Dion had the two linked CIP orders re-read into the record as a single hearing, and then re-opened public comment.

Scharf re-approached the podium to make a more substantive comment. “The CIP process is broken, it’s been broken for many years, it’s supposed to start in the Planning Board,” Scharf asserted that the city’s charter charged the Planning Board with drafting capital improvement appropriations as opposed to city staff and the Finance Committee, “I don’t know why this council won’t have the Planning Board do it’s job.” He called the documentation provided for the projects inadequate, and not sufficiently reviewable by the public on the internet. “It’s 2024.” He concluded by criticizing Bullett’s largely unjustified expansions, and what he called the outdated use of bond issues to maintain the region’s credit. Regarding the suburbs’ access to loans, “I don’t care about their credit,” he finished.

Last to speak was David LaCasse, Chair of the Operations Committee of the Friends of Congress Square Park. He recounted the history of the planning and fundraising for the CSP improvement project, noting that the Friends have worked with four mayors, three city managers, two planning department project managers, and many, many councilors. Discussing the hundreds of thousands of dollars which the Friends had raised for the project, he urged the council to continue supporting the park; “We are still doing our part, we are asking the city to continue doing their part… Great cities have great public spaces, let’s finish this together.”

With no further public comments, the council spent several minutes in confusion over procedure, but finally opened the floor for discussion among themselves. The other newly-elected councilor, Kate Sykes, didn’t hesitate in making her perspective clear.

Sykes Moves for Delay, Transparency

“We haven’t even seen the operating budget at this time. You might as well ask me to pick a number out of a hat.” Taking a similar line to George Rheault, Sykes was infuriated by what she perceived as a lack of transparency and a fractured budgetary process incomprehensible to nearly everyone. (Not for a lack of trying either, she clarified, as she’d “attended every Finance Committee meeting.”) Sykes continued, saying that councilors had been “approached by staff and told we were in a dire budget year, in fact, we were told people were scared by this budget,” and yet the CIP had received an increase of $9 million in the lead-up to this meeting, and Bullett’s additional million-dollar amendment was considered routine. Utterly unsatisfied with the process as it had progressed, she moved to postpone approval of the CIP until April 8th.

Councilor Trevorrow called Finance Director O’Connell to the podium to address some of these concerns, and shared that she too felt as though the process was flawed. O’Connell tried to assuage some of Sykes’ concerns. He explained that the additional $9 million “found” for the CIP budget was in fact merely an update of the actual surplus which the city had run the previous year, which turned out to be $9 million higher than the estimate which they originally made. This increase, as it represented a one-time adjustment, ought to be applied to the CIP (where one-time projects are generally funded), instead of the general budget, which is concerned with ongoing expenses. “This past year we had a great fiscal year.”

Sykes appreciated this information, but still demanded more specificity. Councilor Ali also spoke up, recalling that in years past, Finance Department staff had made time for individual meetings with councilors discuss the CIP budget. But, Ali continued, he didn’t remember having any such meeting this time; had the Finance Department met with the councilors?  

Sheepishly, O’Connell admitted that the overstretched department hadn’t found the time to meet with councilors and discuss CIP this year. He blamed understaffing, which has since been ameliorated, and promise that it wouldn’t happen again. He also explained that, due to the factors of labor and materials availability mentioned previously by Mr. Dundon, the CIP approval process has been happening earlier and earlier every year. O’Connell also, to satisfy Sykes’ demands for specific numbers, explained that it is staff’s policy for the city to always keep two months’ worth of operating expenditures, (16.6% of the annual budget or approximately $55 million,) in reserve at all times. The increased CIP budget would bring the city’s reserves to this level.

Eventually, Sykes’ concerns were satisfied to the point that – though she still believed reforms to the budgetary process ought be made – she withdrew her motion to postpone.

More general confusion regarding procedure followed, and no other councilor apparently had anything to say about the multi-million-dollar authorizations. Councilor Bullett’s $1 million amendment passed unanimously without discussion, and the council then unanimously approved the Capital Improvement Plan in Orders 144 and 145.

Orders

The last subject for the Council that evening was Orders 149 and 150, concerning how Portland incentivizes housing development in the city. Housing and Community Development Division Director Mary Davis explained what the city would be voting on, a plan for how the city’s housing staff should administer the various programs, and approval for a new application by which developers can take advantage of those programs.

She also gave a brief overview of the major programs. The HOME program, (contrary to popular belief, not an acronym,) is a funding mechanism from the federal government available to new projects targeting households at or below 50% of Area Median Income (AMI). The Jill C. Duson Housing Trust Fund, a pool of money for subsidizing housing construction, and the Tax-Increment Financing (TIF) program, which defers tax burdens to ease financing of new housing, would be made available for housing projects targeting households at or below 100% AMI, with special priority if developers aimed for 80% or below. She explained the priority would also be extended to projects which passed an equity analysis, contain mixed-income and mixed-size units, and feature “contextually appropriate housing density” for their neighborhoods.

Davis also, for context, noted that for a family of four, 100% AMI is currently $119,500 per year, 80% is $94,600, and 50% is $59,150.

No public commenters remained in chambers, so Councilor Fournier asked the first question, wondering why the focus had shifted from 50% AMI to 80% AMI. Davis clarified that no such shift had taken place, that the HOME program had always and would still be focused on the 50% level, while the other programs would focus on the 80% level to align with the “Green New Deal” 80% AMI requirement for new projects.

Satisfied with that explanation, Fournier had a second question – what, exactly, did Davis mean by an “equity analysis”? No elaboration on this point was included in the material, the councilor observed.

Mary Davis seemed somewhat embarrassed by the answer to this question, admitting that no specific criteria had been settled upon by the city’s staff and legal counsel. The most concrete response she could give was to say that the department had tried to “encourage a diverse application pool using the [pause] wording that we use in the applications.”

Fournier was less satisfied with that explanation, and wanted to know if it was something the Housing and Economic Development Committee (HEDC) could work on after the fact. Councilor Phillips joined in this sentiment, asking how useful an “equity analysis” with no criteria could be. Councilor Ali, Chair of the HEDC, chimed in to offer some background. Apparently, the committee had wanted to establish firmer guidelines, but no one from staff ever got back to the councilors about what they would be allowed to do. He asked Davis about postponing the vote until they could rectify this.

Davis reacted strongly to this, and insisted that approving the plan and application was essential to do that night, as it was tying up sources of funding. Mayor Dion asked whether the council could just vote the approval in tonight, and then add more substantial criteria later. His tone suggested that he expected the answer to be an easy ‘yes’ – but Davis paused and awkwardly answered in the negative. They were voting on the exact language that would be on the program applications, and this couldn’t be easily changed later.

Instead of applying any hard criteria to the “equity analysis”, Davis suggested that the council look towards establishing some sort of community lecture series about how affordable housing gets funded. Taking her up on this offered distraction, Ali agreed that there was more to diversity than just giving minority applicants a boost. He suggested they move to a vote.

First, however, Bullett had another question. What exactly happens to a household if they started earning more money than their housing allowed? For example, if a family at 70% AMI moved into a unit that required them to earn less than 80%, but then after a promotion started earning 90%, would they be kicked out of their unit?

Davis answered that the specifics will depend on the project, but that usually in such cases, they are offered a market-rate unit in the same building. “You can be over the level for a certain period of time… if somebody [is] no longer eligible for that particular unit, the developer makes available the next other unit in the building.” While this still left some uncertainty, (what, for example, would happen if no such unit did ever become available,) Bullett was satisfied enough to let the matter drop.

The plan passed unanimously.

First reads of items to be debated at the next meeting, April 8th, were read into the record, and the council adjourned at 7:52 PM.

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 ashley@donnellykeenan.com

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