Last night the City’s Economic Development Committee took a long look at Mayor Ethan Strimling’s proposed amendments to Portland’s Tax Increment Financing Policy (“TIF”). and ended up asking many, many questions following his presentation and the testimony of interested parties. Those supporting the Mayor’s changes outnumbered the opponents by a margin of 2 – 1 during the almost three (3) hour meeting.
In his presentation to the Committee, the Mayor said these changes would “retain and create equality employment…..By attaching community benefits such as fair wages, equitable hiring practices and meaningful workforce development provisions, we are spurring investment in the working families of Portland.” One of the more significant changes to the TIF policy provides that 25% of work hours on a construction of the TIF-assisted project be performed by a combination of Portland residents; women, minorities and veterans. The Mayor emphasized that Portland “needs to get as much public benefit as possible” from its TIF policy. A position that Councilor Brian Bateman has also endorsed.
“These are underserved populations in Portland and this will be an invaluable tool in helping alleviate the poverty that has held these populations back for decades and will be critical in helping create an all-inclusive economic mobility,” said City Councilor Pios Ali.
Among the fifteen (15) or so who supported the changes were State Senator Troy Jackson of Allagash. He said he “favors Maine laborers….there is no other way to turn this state around.” Paul Brunetti said that development has become the public’s number one enemy. “The community will buy into this because it’s for the public good.” State Rep. Ben T. Collins said: “We need skilled local workers to do the work here.” It’s well known that projects have been delayed because of a dearth of skilled workers in the area during this building boom.
On record as opposed to the changes were Matt Peters of Avesta Housing and the Portland Chamber of Commerce, represented by former city councilor Jim Cohen; both speakers were in a minority on the issue. City Manager Jon Jennings produced a memorandum with some of his concerns about the proposed policy changes. Jennings and the Mayor have clashed from the get-go over policy issues and other matters.
Led by real estate attorney Spencer Thibodeau who is a member of the EDC, asked numerous questions of the Mayor leaving him with a significant amount of research to do on the details of the proposed policy. Chair Brennerman said that the reasons for all the questions was not because of opposition to the changes, but because we want to get it right. “This is not right.”
Although not a member of the EDC, city councilor Belinda Rae, from District 1, attended the meeting asking numerous questions as well – almost confrontational to the Mayor at times. In the past she has publicly criticized the Mayor for his policies and his work ethic. Rae works as a business manager for a small building company in the area. The company is looking to grow its numbers and hire two full-time carpenters in the near future according to an email from Rae. This might influence her view of the Mayor’s proposed policy changes. (It is highly unusual for a non-member of a Committee to step in and participate as intensely in the questioning as did Councilor Rae during the meeting.) The next meeting to address the questions asked will be on May 23rd at 5:30 pm at city hall.
The first item on the agenda was a memorandum prepared by Michael A. Russell, Director, Permitting and Inspection Department. In his brief presentation, to the Committee, Russell said his 30 page document was an effort to “streamline and update the new department’s operations.” The document included incorporating the former Housing Safety Office into his Department. This was a change that became controversial when mhn.com learned that the well-liked Housing Safety Officer Art Howe was fired from his position earlier this year by Russell. The matter was reported previously herein.
The City maintained that this personnel change was part of the plan all along, a personnel move that the well-liked Howe was unaware of when he signed on to establish the office almost two years ago.
The document will be reviewed in more detail at a later meeting according to Chair Brennerman.