PORTLAND, Maine — Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said Wednesday night he plans to pursue a citywide minimum wage as part of a wide-ranging slate of initiatives aimed at growing the economy, increasing educational opportunities, driving down substance abuse and creating more housing.
During a nearly hourlong, largely extemporaneous State of the City address, Brennan’s second since being elected mayor in 2011, he reflected on Portland’s recent development boom, successes finding homes and jobs for homeless residents, and streamlined permitting processes, among other things.
In addition to making Portland likely the first Maine municipality with its own minimum wage, Brennan called for a moratorium on new charter schools in the city and a new crackdown on substance abuse in the aftermath of the voters’ legalization of marijuana.
The annual speech was established through a 2010 city charter amendment that made the mayor position a popularly elected one for the first time since 1923. In the nearly 90 years before Brennan won the seat at the polls, the mayor was picked by fellow city councilors as their chairman.
On Wednesday night, Brennan lauded several department-level victories in 2013. He noted that, because of a series of Department of Health and Human Services initiatives requiring shelter users to follow personalized programs toward housing and employment, 659 homeless people found permanent housing last year.
That figure represented a 45-percent increase compared with the previous year’s number, he said. Another 309 people found job placements through city programs, Brennan said.
“These are people who had previously been homeless and without employment,” he said.
The average permitting time was cut from 41 days to 31 days in 2013, and private investment in development in the city rose from $32 million in 2012 to $91 million in the most recent year, Brennan said. Another $150 million in private development is currently under consideration by the city, he noted.
Perhaps the most prominent recent project approved by the city got its Planning Board OK last week. The $50-million first phase of the four-tower, two parking garage Midtown project in the Bayside neighborhood received site plan and subdivision approvals on Jan. 14.
After recalling the city’s successes in the recent year, Brennan moved on to describe a series of goals for the years ahead, including the bold plan to consider a minimum wage in the city — presumably one that would be higher than the state wage, in an effort to drive up the earnings of Portlanders.
The current state minimum wage is $7.50 per hour, while the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.
The mayor also said he planned to build on his ConnectED initiative — which partners local nonprofits, businesses, researchers and educational institutions across all levels — to focus on ensuring all Portland students are reading at grade level by the third grade.
Brennan pointed to oft-cited studies showing that children reading at grade level by the third grade show greater success rates academically and even professionally in later years. He said he plans to distribute public library cards to all public school students in the city.
The mayor also said he wants to pursue a moratorium on new charter schools in the city. Brennan had fought vociferously against the establishment of the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, which opened in the fall under a recent state law legalizing the special schools. He argued the school would siphon much-needed state subsidies from the already cash-strapped current public schools.
Other major announcements Wednesday night included the proposed formation of a new subcommittee to “address education, prevention, intervention and treatment related to drug and alcohol use.” That proposal comes as a response to November’s high-profile voter approval of a referendum making Portland the first East Coast city where marijuana possession is considered legal at the local level.
“The discussion we did not have [during the referendum campaign] was a dialogue about alcohol use and abuse, drug use and abuse, and addiction. One of the major drivers of crime in Portland is addiction and alcohol use and abuse,” Brennan said.
He also urged his fellow councilors to support a resolution self-designating Portland as a “compassionate community,” as a network of other like-minded municipalities around the country have done, and adopt a common management rating program popular among communities elsewhere in the nation.
“It will give us a quantifiable view of the city of Portland that we can put in context against other cities across the country,” he said, noting the rankings would gauge the city in terms of economy, energy management, civil rights, affordable housing and a range of other topics. “No longer will we be subject to arbitrary ratings across the country to determine if we’re doing well in key areas in the city.”
Brennan — who also announced an unveiling next month of a new school-based clinic at Portland High School named after the late longtime nurse and children’s health advocate Amanda Rowe — didn’t miss the opportunity Wednesday to take aim at state and federal spending cuts.
He said he told U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, during a recent meeting, “If it weren’t for Washington and if it weren’t for Augusta, Portland would be doing great.”
Brennan said the sweeping federal spending cuts known as the sequester undermined educational and low-income housing initiatives the city had planned in the most recent year, and lamented the city’s loss of nearly $2 million in state revenue sharing money.
He said if a bill proposed to restore $40 million in state revenue sharing isn’t approved, the city will lose $3 million more in state aid during the coming year.
Brennan urged Portlanders to contact their legislators and support the bill, as well as efforts to expand MaineCare health insurance coverage as allowed under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act — a move opposed by most legislative Republicans, but one which the mayor said would provide healthcare to “thousands” more Portland residents.