Portland City Manager Jon Jennings on Tuesday took a half step back from what appeared to be an emerging confrontation with Mayor Ethan Strimling over the administrator’s budget proposal and plan to close a city-run clinic on India Street.
In a statement, Jennings said that although “there is much I could say in response to Mayor Strimling’s comments on my budget proposal,” he wouldn’t respond in depth, adding that his “position requires me to make tough decisions on a daily basis that some may disagree with. That is called leadership.”
The statement comes in response to Strimling’s reportedly strong criticism of the city manager’s spending plan Monday night, and spotlights public contention among Portland’s highest ranking officials.
Jennings’ proposal to shut down the city’s India Street Public Health Center and transfer its services for low income and at-risk populations to the private nonprofit Portland Community Health Center has been controversial.
The city manager has argued the private institution can demand more in federal reimbursements for its services, increasing the flow of health care dollars into the city, and that Portland should focus on more traditional city services like infrastructure maintenance and public works.
In his remarks Monday night, Strimling acknowledged that many of Jennings’ proposed health care cuts were the result of the loss of grant funding, but suggested the city should do more to absorb those costs, according to the Portland Press Herald.
The mayor noted that while the city manager’s budget proposal lets go of 35 public health and social services jobs, it adds 20 for permitting and inspections, and finds local funding to support 12 firefighter positions that were previously grant-funded.
Jennings has noted that the city’s expected loss of nearly $700,000 in state-administered Healthy Maine Partnerships grant money, among other grant sources, played a role in his budgeting.
“These cuts, in part, will end up eliminating city-led direct medical service to our most vulnerable neighbors, drug education and treatment for our residents, and enforcement methods that keep cigarettes out of the hands of our children,” the mayor said, according to the newspaper.
“In essence, does choosing public works over preventative health reflect our shared values?” he added.
Strimling said he wanted more details about how the city would transition its services to the Portland Community Health Center before endorsing the plan, saying in particular he wanted to know where the clinic’s needle exchange would be moved to, whether federal Ryan White Program grant money for HIV services would be transferable to the new location and how PCHC would protect the identities of patients seeking treatment for HIV and STDs, among other things, according to The Forecaster.
City Councilors Jill Duson and Jon Hinck in particular took umbrage Monday night with what Duson described as the mayor’s “completely unfair” attacks on the city manager’s proposal, The Forecaster reported.
Duson argued Strimling’s “public works-over-public health” characterization oversimplified the budgeting process, and argued the mayor’s insistence on adding a $64,000 assistant for himself could be seen as cannibalizing health care funds using the same logic, the Press Herald reported.
On Tuesday, Jennings stopped short of a full-fledged public argument with Strimling in his response to his comments. He noted in his statement that his budget proposal received the approval of the council’s own Finance Committee before Monday night’s discussion.
Rather than debate Strimling publicly, the city manager stated, “I believe it is much more important to focus on doing my job for the people of Portland and working with the City Council to move the city forward in a positive direction.”
The fiscal year 2017 budget is the first to be developed with Strimling and Jennings in charge of the city.
The dispute comes less than six months after Portland voters elected Strimling to replace incumbent mayor Michael Brennan, in part based on Strimling’s campaign message that he’d be a peacemaker and unifier at City Hall.
Brennan, who had successfully spearheaded an effort to establish a higher citywide minimum wage, among other measures, was criticized on the campaign trail for allegedly clashing behind-the-scenes with city councilors and contributing to an unstable power dynamic between his office and the city manager’s.
In September of 2014, previous city manager Mark Rees resigned from his post, and after a lengthy search, Jennings was hired to take over the job in July of 2015.