PORTLAND, Maine — Democratic lawmakers, advocates for the poor and city officials are calling on Gov. Paul LePage to step back from a process that would move Department of Health and Human Services offices from downtown Portland to a site in South Portland near the jetport.
Critics of the move say the relocation will make it harder for the region’s neediest residents to access vital services. To illustrate that point, Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, on Tuesday rode a METRO bus from downtown Portland to the site chosen by the state after a competitive bid process.
It took about 40 minutes for the bus to arrive at the proposed location, plus another 30 minutes or so to get back to downtown Portland. With the notoriously long wait times at DHHS and other scheduling concerns, a trip to meet a caseworker could take half a day.
For some, that’s too much to ask of people who are accustomed to being able to walk to Marginal Way, where the DHHS office is currently located. That location is within a half-mile radius of several other services for the poor, including a career center and soup kitchen.
For those in the most dire straits, it’s not just the distance to South Portland that could put help out of reach — it’s the cost to get there. A round-trip bus ticket costs $3, and a taxi costs more than $30.
“What would I have to go without to afford to get there?” asked Judy Newell, a disabled, recently homeless Portland resident who now lives in subsidized housing and receives food stamps. She spoke at a news conference held in Portland before the bus trip.
“I know we can find a better solution,” she said.
The lease on the Marginal Way building expires in 2015. The state currently pays nearly $30 per square foot, and wanted to negotiate a new, lower price, said Jennifer Smith, a spokeswoman for the state’s contracting agency.
But the landlord, Fore River Co., had other ideas, and said he had other tenants lined up who were willing to pay a premium price in the developing neighborhood. The lease on the Lancaster Street location of Department of Labor offices in Portland is also up in 2015, and the state decided to look into co-locating the two agencies in one building, Smith said. The idea is to give welfare recipients easy access to the work programs offered by the Department of Labor.
So in July, the Bureau of General Services put out a request for proposals. Three were submitted with locations on Portland’s urban peninsula, and another proposal, which eventually won, was submitted for South Portland.
The winning bid was submitted by ELC Management Inc. of South Portland, which would sign a 20-year lease worth about $43 million for a building it will construct near the Portland International Jetport. LePage has said the deal will save Maine taxpayers more than $14 million over the lifetime of the lease. The state has until Dec. 15 to negotiate a contract with ELC Management.
State officials have noted that only one-third of the people served by the Portland DHHS office come from that city, and say that for the majority of visitors, the South Portland location will not be any more difficult.
Alfond called that argument a “red herring.” Anyone without a car would still need to take a bus into Portland in order to access the 40-minute METRO bus ride to the new location, he said. Currently, they simply take the bus into Portland and walk 15 minutes to Marginal Way.
“I think this administration has shown over and over that they try to make services being delivered to Maine’s neediest harder,” he said. “Whether it’s cutting MaineCare, whether it’s the transportation ride system now, whether it’s general assistance being gutted every time the governor puts out a budget, this administration has a war on the poor, and this is another prime example of it.”
In a video released Tuesday, LePage said that any problems with public transportation to a new site for DHHS and DoL should be easy to solve for the METRO system.
“We dedicate a significant amount of municipal, state and federal resources for public transportation,” he said. “With these resources, public officials design bus routes to accommodate the needs of their customers. This is certainly something I would expect from the folks of the Portland region.”
A representative from Portland METRO said the transit agency was neutral in the debate, and would “work with whatever happens.”
Smith said there’s plenty of time for the state to work out the issues raised by Alfond and his cohort.
“We have well over a year where we’re going to work through all these things,” she said. “We’re not moving tomorrow.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.