The Portland police budget has increased by nearly 40 percent over the past decade, while spending on public health has dropped by more than 50 percent – and the City Council is about examine that disparity.

Since 2010, public health spending in Portland has declined by 53 percent, to $2.1 million in 2020. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Progressive activists want to reverse the trend, as calls grow nationally and locally to remove funding from police budgets and increase investment in public health and social services to address unmet needs of Black people and vulnerable populations such as homeless people.

The demand to defund the police in Maine’s largest city was initially made by Black Lives Matter Portland and amplified by protesters who set up a more than two-week encampment at City Hall. In addition to more services for mental illness and substance use at the expense of police, the encampment protesters called for the legalization of camping in public, as a way to decriminalize homelessness and poverty.

Portland city councilors are reviewing the budget for the current fiscal year and plan to take up both the police and the public health budgets Wednesday.

In response to an interview request, Mayor Kate Snyder said in a brief email Tuesday that the council’s finance committee has requested a memo from staff detailing the spending trends. “I look forward to reviewing that tomorrow,” she said. Snyder did not respond to a follow-up question asking whether she was concerned by the trends.

Unlike other states, Maine does not have county public health programs, and only two municipalities – Portland and Bangor – have public health departments. That leaves most public health duties – which include disease prevention, education, investigation and response – to state government.

Maine saw a divestment in public health during Gov. Paul LePage’s two terms in office, which affected the state’s ability to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Trust for America’s Health, a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group, said in a recent report that public health programs across the country have seen funding diverted to other programs over the past decade, which has resulted in a loss of 56,000 public health positions.

In Portland, public health services have included policy development (such as smoking and vaping bans) and direct services like health care for the homeless, sexually transmitted disease testing and treatment, a needle exchange, and free distribution of the overdose antidote naloxone.

Since 2010, public health spending in Portland has declined by 53 percent, or $2.4 million, to $2.1 million in 2020. Bangor’s investment in public health nursing and immunizations has dropped only 1.2 percent, or $4,375, over the past eight years.

Meanwhile, the police budget has increased by more than 38 percent, or $4.9 million, from $12.8 million in 2010 to $17.7 million in 2020. Much of that increase has gone to salary increases and signing bonuses for police officers, who are in short supply.

But that trend doesn’t necessarily mean Portland’s police budget was increased at the expense of public health.

In 2010, 86 percent of the public health budget was supported by revenue from providing services to patients, and federal, state and private grants, while the police force is funded primarily through property taxes.

Jessica Grondin, the City Hall communications director, said Portland’s public health budget is largely funded by grants, which decreased under LePage.

“As for public health spending, it’s worth noting that the city’s public health department has always relied largely on the public health grants it receives and as such the budgets reflect that up and down movement over the years,” Grondin said in an email. “At no time has the city changed its commitment to applying for grant opportunities and we continue to do so on a consistent basis.”

Instead of focusing on the public health line item, people should consider the city’s health and human services budget as a whole, Grondin said.

For example, the city’s social services budget – which includes general assistance, a safety net program largely funded by the state providing vouchers for shelter, food and other basic necessities – has risen 89 percent, or $6.2 million, since 2010 to nearly $13.2 million in 2020. Meanwhile, Bangor’s general assistance budget has dropped nearly 43 percent, or $1.3 million.

Portland was working on a community health improvement plan before the coronavirus pandemic, Grondin said, and that work will continue when the new public health director begins next week.

Neither City Manager Jon Jennings nor Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow responded to interview requests Tuesday to discuss the spending trends. But the closure of two health clinics over the past 10 years appears to be driving the decline in health spending.

Services provided at two health clinics that were once operated by the city of Portland have moved to a nonprofit federally qualified health clinic. In 2014, the city lost a federal grant supporting its Healthcare for the Homeless clinic to the nonprofit now called Greater Portland Health. The city protested the move, but the $1.8 million grant, which covered 66 percent of the budget, ultimately went to GPH, which now operates the clinic.

Two years later, Jennings, who was hired as city manager in 2015, proposed closing the India Street Public Health Center, which at the time provided a range of services for vulnerable city residents, including HIV treatment, sexually transmitted disease treatment and a needle exchange. The proposal proved to be controversial, leading to several heated council meetings.

At the time, City Councilors Jill Duson and Edward Suslovic supported the proposal, saying that the transfer of those services had been contemplated back when the city helped created the nonprofit clinic. They noted that the nonprofit would be eligible for higher reimbursement rates, making the clinic more sustainable.

In the end, the city transferred only a $356,500 federal grant for its HIV clinic to Greater Portland Health and stated its intent to wind down other services in the future. However, only the HIV clinic has been closed, while the STD clinic and needle exchange have remained open.

The city defended its investment in a misleading opinion piece published Friday in the Press Herald.

Dow wrote that the India Street clinic “has never been in danger of fully closing,” when that was clearly not the case. Dow noted that since 2017 the city has increased services at the STD clinic and has an agreement with Maine Medical Center to provide oversight and residents to help staff the clinic.

Meanwhile, the city says it has increased public health spending by 17 percent, or $360,000, in the last three years and that another increase of 11 percent, or $113,000, is proposed for 2021. Jennings also has proposed a $1.1 million reduction in the police budget, eliminating two school resource officers and a community policing position.

“The ongoing myth that is constantly perpetuated on social media and in op-ed pieces in this paper – that the city of Portland does not value health and human services – is patently false,” Dow wrote.

Grondin did not respond to a question about whether the opinion column was reviewed by other city staff before submission and, if so, why the error was allowed to remain in the piece.

Portland resident Joey Brunelle, an activist and former city council candidate, said he had a strong reaction to Dow’s claims that the India Street clinic was never in jeopardy of closing. He was one of the leaders of the movement to save it and submitted a rebuttal to the newspaper.

“I was there,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “I was stunned, and I was enraged (by Dow’s column). I felt like I was being gas-lit by the head of the health and human services department.”

Brunelle posted a graphic on Facebook on June 10 that shows the diverging trends in police and public health spending. He said his intent was to support of Black Lives Matter Portland’s call to defund the police, but he soon realized there was another story to tell.

“I saw two shocking things instead of one,” Brunelle said. “Budgets are a reflection of our priorities. If you look at the numbers, we have not prioritized public health and we have prioritized policing.”

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