PORTLAND, Maine — Mayor Ethan Strimling on Monday evening called on the city to borrow tens of millions of dollars to renovate four of Portland’s aging elementary schools, suggested the time has come to give legal immigrants who are not yet citizens local voting rights, and presented policy aimed at forcing developers to build more affordable housing.
The laundry list of proposals came during his second State of the City address, which served as a broad call on the City Council to enact the “progressive vision” that Strimling said Portland needs, and a warning of the inequality that might otherwise deepen.
“We also have to be careful that the rising tide of wealth and opportunity in Portland does not drown out our middle-class neighbors,” Strimling said. He added later, “We cannot become a tale of two cities.”
The roughly 40-minute speech was delivered after a year that saw the mayor clash with the City Council and City Manager Jon Jennings, who also recently laid out his vision for where Portland is headed at a breakfast hosted by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Strimling, who is beginning the second year of his four-year term, promised to keep pushing for several initiatives that the City Council had balked at or put off last year. The speech was delivered before the council set its formal goals for the year, and it suggested that 2017 will continue some of 2016’s debates.
Strimling also urged the council to enact a regulation that would require city businesses provide workers with paid sick time, suggested the the city should follow the lead of South Portland by equipping its police with body cameras, and that it should use only clean energy by 2040.
With the intent of easing the budgets of low- and middle-income Portlanders who have struggled with steeply rising rents, Strimling called for an expansion of the city’s policy that requires large new developments to include some affordable housing. The city now requires that 10 percent of the units built in projects of 10 or more units be affordable to middle-income households. The mayor said the rate should be doubled.
One of the major issues the City Council grappled with last year was how to pay for school renovations that most city councilors agreed are needed. The mayor has been an outspoken proponent of a school board proposal to borrow $70 million on the bond market to pay for the improvements, but city councilors have had reservations about whether Portland could take on this much debt without major tax increases.
In his speech, Strimling repeated a demand that the question be put to Portland voters in a referendum.
“We will formally ask this council to send to the voters a package that will ensure our children are spending their most formative years in 21st-century learning environments,” he said. “We must ensure that a child’s address does not dictate his or her educational experience.”
Among the many other policy points noted in the speech, Strimling pledged to work with the City Council to ensure that taxes are not raised more than 2.5 percent.
Jennings said he looks forward to working with the mayor and council on much of what was put forward but expressed concern about the city’s ability to pay for some of the proposals.
“It’s going to be a tough budget year,” he said.
Strimling won a smattering of applause with a call for a gender-neutral bathroom in City Hall, and even more for a line saying he would resist any efforts by the state to reintroduce a lower minimum wage for tipped workers. The mayor named President-elect Donald Trump in a call for Portland to stand fast by its progressive principles.
“Amid threats from Washington, D.C., we must not retreat from the values we hold so dear,” he said.
After an election that saw the state and country starkly divided on the question of immigration, Strimling said he believes that Portland may be ready to give noncitizens in the country legally the right to vote in local elections. Portlanders narrowly voted down a measure to do this in 2010.
And the mayor celebrated the creation of a new city bureau that will work to help immigrants enter the workforce. The office was one of the policy objectives Strimling named in his first State of the City address.
But Strimling also said that policies to protect immigrants may need to be re-examined in light of Trump’s promise of mass deportations. Portland’s policy is to cooperate with federal authorities, but it bars city workers from inquiring about people’s immigration status.
“Maybe we need to strengthen our ordinance,” he said.