PORTLAND, Maine — The City Council voted unanimously Monday to create an office designed to help immigrants and disadvantaged Mainers find work in the state’s economic hub.
Councilors voted to establish the Office of Economic Opportunity in their final scheduled meeting of the year, after months of deliberation and meetings with the city’s various immigrant communities. The new bureau aims to help new Mainers and those who may face discrimination in the labor market find work and job training, but those goals still depend on the city finding more than $165,000 in grant funding.
The council named creating the office as one of its top priorities for 2016, following a BDN report that highlighted immigration as a potential solution to Maine’s looming labor crisis and showed how other American cities have spurred economic growth by connecting immigrants with jobs. The new office is the first of its kind in Maine, according to Councilor David Brenerman, who led the committee that developed it.
“This will do more for the city than, perhaps, anything we have done in my first year,” Mayor Ethan Strimling said, thanking Brenerman.
The office was designed to help new Mainers enroll in and coordinate education and training programs, such as those offered by groups like Catholic Charities and Portland Adult Education. The office will connect immigrants and underserved populations with opportunities but is not meant to be a service provider itself, Brenerman said.
The creation of the office was welcomed by several new Mainers who spoke at the council meeting.
“It is really helpful to see that the city is coming together to acknowledge the work of the immigrants and actually empower the immigrants to work together to advance the work of the state [of Maine],” Claude Rwaganje, executive director of Portland immigrant aid group Community Financial Literacy, said.
The office will have a staff of three, with a director, answerable to the city manager, and two program managers focused on immigrant integration, inclusion and equity.
Including salaries, the office will have a startup budget of nearly $260,000, but the city has allocated funds for less than half that amount. More than $165,000 of the new office’s budget is meant to come from grants, according to the memorandum sent to the full council by the Economic Development Committee. No grants have yet been obtained for this purpose.
The salaries of both program managers are meant to come from grant funding, an approach that has bedeviled Portland before.
The city this summer shuttered its Office of Refugee Services after failing to win renewal of federal grants that funded the program.
“Even if we couldn’t find all the grant funding we want to, this is a program [budget] that the city could step into if necessary,” said Justin Costa, who sat on the Economic Development Committee as it developed the new office.
Brenerman said specific grants have not been lined up to fund the office, but the city councilors emphasized the importance of easing immigrants’ entry into Portland’s workforce. Indeed, the vitality of the metro area that accounts for more than half of Maine’s economy increasingly relies on it.
As the state grays, Mainers are leaving the workforce faster than new workers enter. In Portland, where about 15 percent of residents were born outside the United States, the population would have shrunk if not for immigration in recent years, according to a recent study.
“The entire United States is not making enough babies and immigrants really need to be part of the solution if we are to remain globally competitive,” immigration lawyer Beth Stickney told City Council.