‘For $23 million, taking the bus won’t hurt anybody’: LePage praises new state offices in South Portland

Posted Jan. 05, 2015, at 6:47 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 05, 2015, at 7:56 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Monday afternoon lauded the new regional home for state Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Labor offices in South Portland, touting both the cross-department collaboration and monetary savings the new building could generate.

The move of the state offices from downtown Portland to the South Portland site near the Portland International Jetport stirred controversy when it was announced in the fall of 2013, as Portland city officials, politicians and advocates for homeless people said the new location would be harder to access by people without cars.

The governor had this to say in response to those criticisms Monday: “Get over it. This building will save the state $23 million, and the bus line will come right here. For $23 million, taking the bus won’t hurt anybody.”

A bid review team including the state Bureau of General Services and the two departments chose the South Portland site over keeping the offices in downtown Portland, where DHHS had a Marginal Way location and the Department of Labor leased space on Lancaster Street.

The South Portland proposal scored the highest out of four to house the state offices, although critics of the choice, including Lancaster Street landlord Tom Toye, blasted some of the criteria scoring as “arbitrary” and unfair.

Bureau officials had initially said the contract to place the state offices in a new building in South Portland would save the state $14 million over the course of 20 years. But Eric Cianchette — head of Jetport State Building LLC, which proposed the new building and won the deal for the state offices — said on Monday the project will actually save $23 million over 30 years.

Ken Cianchette, representing the building owner, said that thanks to the energy efficient design of the new 75,000-square-foot structure, electricity costs at the facility are expected to be about $1 per square foot each year. A typical commercial building has annual energy costs of between $2.50 and $3.50 per square foot, he said, and Julie Rabinowitz of the Department of Labor said the agency’s Lancaster Street structure faced costs closer to $5 per square foot.

LePage also suggested Greater Portland METRO bus service will add routes to the South Portland site in response to concerns about access.

“The people who use this service come from all over the area, not just one particular community,” South Portland Mayor Linda Cohen told reporters Monday.

Proponents of the South Portland project said the benefit extended beyond just the cost savings. In addition to the DHHS and Department of Labor branches, state education and veterans services offices also will be located in the new building.

Mary Mayhew, state commissioner of DHHS, said her department will have child and family services, substance abuse and mental health services, aging and disability services and state Center for Disease Control and Prevention representatives on hand in one location at the new facility.

Clients will easily be able to access a range of programs, including job counseling and other employment programs across the hall with the Department of Labor, she said. Mayhew called the consolidation effort one that will allow the state to offer a “holistic approach” to helping the least fortunate.

“When you look at the families and individuals we serve, their needs don’t fit neatly into one program area,” Mayhew said. “Their needs span across a number of program areas. … We know employment is key to many people’s recovery.”

Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette said the collaboration between departments will allow the state to “tap into previously underutilized labor pools” to meet employer demands, helping find employment for veterans and people with disabilities.

“I cannot wait to see everybody going in and out of these doors knowing there’s hope in the state of Maine,” she said.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who was among those to initially criticize the move, said he still believes it’s a bad idea. Brennan said he expects it to cost about $1 million to move the current offices to neighboring South Portland.

The two-story building, which was largely unfurnished on the bottom floor Monday, will be open to the public on Jan. 26.

Brennan also said the Jetport Drive location would have better value as a commercial project, not a government office building.

“I think this is an extraordinarily poor decision by the Department of Health and Human Services,” Brennan said. “There were less costly proposals that would have allowed the DHHS to remain in Portland. … I think it’s an expensive proposal, it’s an unnecessary proposal, and I think it’s going to hurt the very people it’s intended to serve.”