Portland City Council approves block grant spending


PORTLAND — City councilors settled one budget question Monday, then got a glimpse into the future of city spending and operations.

By a unanimous vote, the council approved the fiscal year 2017 block grant spending plan proposed by City Manager Jon Jennings earlier this month. The nearly $4 million in spending is far outstripped by the demand, Jennings said.

“This is one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in this position,” Jennings said of allocating $1.8 million in Community Development Block Grants, $989,000 in other funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as some accrued city money.

Councilors also eliminated an automatic $90,000 set aside in CDBG funds for the Catherine Morrill Day Nursery. The dedicated fund was created last year after councilors eliminated bonus points for child-care grant applications.

The nursery will receive $50,000 in a block grant next year, although Jennings hinted additional funding could come when the council votes May 16 on the municipal budget he will introduce Monday, April 4.

As occurred in the March 14 CDBG hearing, child-care advocates requested that the funds continue to be set aside, although the elimination allowed Jennings to shift funding to the Homeless Outreach & Mobile Engagement, or HOME Team, operated by the Milestone Foundation.

The Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter operated by Preble Street will also receive $15,000 in diverted funding.

“If I have to choose between a subsidy for child care or helping a homeless teen out of harm’s way, I am going to make the decision to help a teen out of harm’s way,” Councilor Jill Duson said before voting to eliminate the set-aside funding. Councilors Nick Mavodones Jr. and David Brenerman opposed ending the set-aside.

In a 60-minute workshop following the 75-minute meeting, Fire Chief David Jackson outlined steps his department has taken to become more efficient, and said he and Jennings are now studying how the department may consolidate in the future.

The municipal operations budget Jennings will introduce will have money “to really look at where we place fire stations,” Jackson said.

“Ocean Avenue and Stevens Avenue are the stations that need to be replaced,” he added about aging off-peninsula stations that may not adequately serve how neighborhoods have grown.

Jackson also took issue with the 2013 audit by Maryland-based consulting firm Public Safety Solutions that suggests the department may be overstaffed, but added protocol changes instituted in 2014 have reduced the number of units that respond to some calls.

There are, on average, 53 firefighters and officers on duty each day, and staffing has been reduced by about 75 from a high of 300, Jackson said. He said comparisons used in the audit to 10 other New England cities were not fully valid because some of those cities lacked waterfronts, airports or did not operate their own rescue units.

Jackson said the department is also preparing to renew its inspection program in conjunction with the new city Housing Safety officer. The 11 city fire companies will be expected to perform48 inspections per shift per company, or more than 2,100 annually.

Commercial “Tier II” inspections for proper procedures on hazardous materials will also be renewed, Jackson said.

In his presentation, Jackson also noted the city boom in housing construction will also place more demands on the department.

Councilor Ed Suslovic, who has questioned how the department is staffed and deployed, praised Jackson for the presentation, but said he would like to hear more about how the rescue unit operations could be consolidated during off-peak hours and how downsizing in other departments has affected overall fire safety ratings assessed by the insurance industry.