PORTLAND, Maine — Mayor Ethan Strimling called Wednesday night for Maine’s largest city to raise $10 million to support the development of affordable housing and to hold a referendum on universal pre-K.
Those proposals came in Strimling’s third State of the City address, which touted the accomplishments of the last year and was framed as a rebuttal to critics who have complained that the mayor’s frequent, public clashes with other city leaders have distracted from the pressing issues facing Portland.
During his 35-minute speech, the mayor listed a series of policies and initiatives the city enacted in 2017, including a tax relief program for senior citizens, a ban on synthetic pesticides, the establishment of Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the shift to keeping the city homeless shelter open around the clock.
He stressed the unanimity with which those measures had passed the council and placed special emphasis on voters’ approval of a $64 million bond to renovate four elementary schools.
The decision to send two school bond questions to voters created weeks of deadlock on the council, and in his speech Strimling skated over the fact that many of its other members have expressed deep frustration and mistrust of the mayor, despite broad policy alignment.
“To those who look at the work being done every day in this building and see only conflict and division, I say that our results show otherwise,” Strimling said.
Roughly 50 Portlanders attended Strimling’s speech at city hall, including many local activists, all eight city councilors, schools Superintendent Xavier Botana and other city officials.
City Manager Jon Jennings’ seat next to the mayor on the council dias was empty. Jennings was absent because of illness, a city spokeswoman said.
The pair have clashed since Strimling was elected mayor, but started meeting regularly again last summer after a meeting where they publicly aired their disagreements.
The mayor called for referendums in the coming year on two of his biggest policy proposals. He wants to ask voters to approve at least half of the $10 million that he’s seeking to “inject” into the city’s affordable housing trust fund in the form of a municipal bond. He also wants a referendum this year on starting universal pre-K in the fall of 2019.
The ballot box has returned mixed results for recent initiatives. In November, local voters strongly rejected rent controls and a measure to give neighborhoods more power over zoning changes, even as they approved the four-school bond.
The mayor hopes that putting more money into the housing trust fund will allow the city to prompt a surge in the development of affordable homes. By the end of 2019, Strimling said, the bonded funds could be combined with $1 million of existing housing money, $3 million from the sale of waterfront property for Wex’s new headquarters and another $1 million that he hopes will role in under the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance.
The city’s $10 million could then “leverage” “tens of millions of state, federal and private money” to put “hundreds and hundreds of new units on the market and creat[e] hundreds and hundreds of new construction jobs,” the mayor said.
The mayor also called for a referendum on whether to establish free pre-K for every Portland 4 year old, a goal that the school board set in 2010. He claimed that starting such a program would cost as little as $2 million.
“Putting it to a vote of the public is not required at this stage of the planning, but I believe that if we want to do something this significant, we should give our residents a direct voice,” he said.
Strimling also used the speech to champion his proposal for mandatory paid sick time and to call for the city to set up more charging stations for electric vehicles while transitioning its own fleet to electric. He further suggested policies to encourage the development of more solar energy.
The Maine Women’s Lobby and Southern Maine Workers’ Center issued a statement supporting Strimling’s paid sick time proposal, which they were involved in developing. And Progressive Portland President Steven Biel issued a statement saying his group would survey its membership to determine which proposals to support.
Following the speech, City Councilor Justin Costa said that the council largely “sees eye-to-eye on policy issues,” but that he expects the members will want to hear more about how the mayor plans to pay for his proposals.
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