The proposed relocation of Maine Department of Health and Human Services offices to the Jetport Access Road in South Portland would hinder service recipients from getting back on their feet, officials argued during a press conference Wednesday.
The issue also looms as a factor in the fall elections, as Portland’s mayor suggested that a new administration in the Blaine House could render the controversy moot.
Governor Paul LePage has highlighted the proposed relocation of DHHS from Portland to South Portland as a benefit for taxpayers and service users.
"This is a good deal for the taxpayers of Maine, and it consolidates two agencies into one providing Mainers resources and services, which are easily accessible," LePage said in January, when the proposal was unveiled. "Our Administration looks forward to serving Mainers at this new location and continuing to help people identify services and programs that are most helpful and offer training and assistance to successfully transition people from welfare to a career they enjoy."
Opponents said the proposal makes no sense, placing a burden of time and money on people living in poverty.
"Ask yourself, would that help you get out of poverty, or just add to your problems?" said Cullen Ryan, executive director of Community Housing of Maine, posing the question about the extended travel time to reach the new proposed location for the office.
On Jan. 2, H. Sawin Millett Jr., commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, announced that state officials had reached a deal that he predicted would "save the taxpayers of the state of Maine more than $23.4 million over the next 30 years when compared to current Portland leased facility rates." Millett said by moving the DHHS office, now located on Marginal Way in Portland, to the Jetport area, the lease rate could be reduced.
The state of Maine signed a contract with ELC Construction, Inc. for the lease of new DHHS and Department of Labor consolidated offices in South Portland, Millett announced at the time.
"The negotiated lease is a great deal for the state," said Millett. "Our tough negotiations since the bid was awarded provided for more than $9.4 million of additional savings over the bid price."
The 30-year lease offered the state 75,000 square feet of space for DHHS and DOL to co-locate their Cumberland County offices, Millett reported. The consolidation of the two agencies into one location aimed to "make it easier for clients to access services provided by both agencies and promote the Administration’s goal of enabling Mainers toward economic independence by providing opportunities to move from welfare to work," a department press release explained.
Critics have called the plan a mistake, saying that the people that DHHS sets out to help will suffer as a result.
Jim Devine, an advocate with Homeless Voices for Justice, noted during the press conference on Wednesday that since December, the group has held demonstrations on the third Wednesday of each month to urge LePage to keep DHHS offices "local and accessible in downtown Portland."
"We have spoken with many people walking in and out of these doors who will be impacted by moving the DHHS office to South Portland," Devine said. "And what we have been hearing is almost always the same. The people who access these services do not support this move. The majority of people are devastated about how this move will impact their lives. I’m one of them."
Devine told his own story of working as an electrician until rendered unable to work because of a disability. Now, he relies on Maine’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food stamps.
"I receive SNAP benefits to help make ends meet each month. I don’t know what I’ll do if the offices are moved out to the Jetport," Devine said.
"Taking the bus is incredibly time consuming," he said, citing questions from clients about how they will manage a two-hour round trip and bus fare when living in poverty.
Ryan said his son, who "happens to have a disabling condition," receives services from Maine DHHS.
"He’s 18, but he would have no idea how to get to a remote location many miles from here, 36 bus stops away," Ryan said.
Ryan described the proposal as a "step backwards."
"Twenty-five hundred people walk through the doors of this building every month, these are real individuals and families in poverty facing very difficult circumstances. None of these families will be better off and none of the children will be better with the proposed location," Ryan said.
"Parents prove that they will do just about anything, they will even camp out in the middle of winter in a cold, snowy parking lot in order to provide food and shelter for their loved ones," Ryan said, citing an actual incident witnessed in Portland during the winter.
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said, "I’m not happy about being here. I think it’s extremely unfortunate that we have to be here today and that we have to have this discussion due to a bad decision that was made by the Department of Health and Human Services and by the LePage administration."
Describing the proposal as a "no win" situation, Brennan said the state will not save money because "the project they’re investing in was not the lowest bidder."
"The role of government is to solve problems, not to create problems," Brennan said.
And when asked about the amount of time needed to reverse the decision, Brennan suggested that the November elections, including that for governor, could play an important role.
Brennan noted that "a new administration and a new governor may take a fresh look," an unspoken nod to the candidacy of U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, in his bid to unseat LePage.
"Certainly the construction is ongoing in South Portland, and the building is being built, but we do have an election in November," Brennan said, "and who knows, in January, what the decision might be at that point. There could be a whole new administration that would take a much more (pragmatic stance), an approach of trying to solve the problem here as opposed to, as I said before, creating a new problem. So I don’t think at this point it’s a done deal."