When you look to buy a house or rent an apartment, you consider many options. What is the location? Is the place affordable? Is it in good shape? Is there enough parking? The process is not one of absolutes. You want a spot that meets each need to the greatest extent possible, understanding there will always be drawbacks.
For the state, the thinking is largely the same. It just must abide by a process set out in law when it seeks to lease new property. And that’s what the Department of Administrative and Financial Affairs has done in trying to secure a new location to house the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Labor in Cumberland County.
Unfortunately, Portland and Democratic leaders have made what should be a thoughtful, technical, legal process into a political battle that we fear hurts their ability to work with the state to actually reach common ground and better serve residents.
What’s happening? The state has accepted the winning bid of developer ELC Management to build a new facility in South Portland near the Portland International Jetport, to house both DHHS and the labor department. It expects to finish negotiating the lease by mid-December.
Combining the local DHHS and labor offices, which are currently located near downtown Portland on Marginal Way and Lancaster Street, respectively, would allow clients to apply for both benefits and jobs, and reduce costs to the state by more than $14 million over a 20-year lease.
The state originally looked elsewhere because the DHHS building lease is ending, and the current landlord can get more money for his prime real estate. The state rightfully isn’t willing to pay more for less in return, so it sent out a request for other proposals in June. Email records show the state communicated with the city about its plans.
Four companies submitted bid proposals for a new site, and staff judged them not by comparing them with one another but against a set of criteria all companies knew about beforehand. The owner of the Marginal Way location did not bid.
The scoring considered location (such as available public transportation, visitor access, safety, traffic flow and ability to expand space and parking), quality (such as building functionality and efficiency, handicap accessibility and technology that cost-effectively manages energy use), the bidder’s track record and cost. It also provided extra points for a downtown location.
When considering all of those factors and others, the South Portland location still came out on top. The two bids for downtown locations ranked last and second to last. The last-ranked bidder appealed and lost.
The state is obligated, by the RFP, to negotiate a lease agreement with the highest ranked bidder. In the event it can’t, it would have to negotiate with the next-highest ranked bidder, and so on, until an acceptable lease agreement is finalized.
If those who oppose the decision don’t like the new location, they should explain exactly why the state should set a terrible precedent by breaking a contractual obligation — likely tying up the state in court. There is absolutely no reason to say the decision was political. Any interference from Gov. Paul LePage in the bidding process or review would likely be illegal, in fact.
Yet, Senate President Justin Alfond and Portland Mayor Michael Brennan have made the political accusations, with Alfond calling the decision another example of the LePage administration’s “war on the poor.” On Tuesday, lawmakers, community leaders and advocates held a press conference and protest march in the city. Instead, they should have been working with the state long ago to determine the best place for the offices.
We don’t like the fact that the offices would move out of the center of Portland. We understand it would be harder and take longer for people in Portland — particularly the vulnerable — to get to South Portland by bus.
But making the argument political and adversarial isn’t helping.
There are ways to address the accessibility issues for people in downtown Portland who would find it difficult to get to South Portland. Case managers at the South Portland office could come regularly to Preble Street homeless shelter, for example. Or the region could figure out a way to make the bus route to South Portland faster and cost and less, in response to increased demand. Or perhaps DHHS could schedule appointments in a way where it makes sense for a bus to take a full load of people directly to the site at certain times.
Or perhaps the city could sit down with the state to figure out if there is a way, in the remaining days of lease negotiations, to include some type of transportation assistance as part of the deal the state strikes with ELC Management.
But fighting an objective process with political attacks doesn’t make sense. If Democrats really want to keep services accessible, they can stop politicizing the problem and talk about a way to meet in the middle. Just as with home or rental agreements, there’s usually room for deliberation and reconsideration if all sides bargain in good faith.