Portland’s spending plan says a lot about its new city manager

Portland City Hall is reflected in the windows of a building across Congress Street. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Portland City Hall is reflected in the windows of a building across Congress Street. (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Jon Jennings is redrawing how government should work in Portland.

In his first budget since becoming city manager, Jennings has proposed cutting, adding or moving dozens of positions. I don’t recall seeing a spending plan that has this much going on since I started covering Portland.

If the $236 million budget is approved by the City Council, there will be nearly 13 fewer city employees (12.8 full-time equivalents, to be exact) in fiscal year 2017 than in 2016, and property taxes will increase 2.3 percent — the lowest local tax hike in at least five years and one that works out to $52 more per year on a home worth $200,000.

That’s the big overview stuff. At almost any level of government, the annual budget is an important window into the priorities of the highest profile administrator in the building, and this one is no exception.

Now let’s look at what this spending plan tells us about how Jon Jennings wants to run the city of Portland.

He wants the city to focus on fewer services

To say he’s pushing for smaller government may be going a bit too far, because he’s adding in some places, but the city manager clearly wants the city doing fewer things.

This is most evident in Jennings’ proposed closure of the India Street Public Health Center, perhaps the most controversial change in the budget, and one which is behind at least eight of the nearly 23 total job cuts proposed in the city’s public health division.

(Many of the others were non-permanent positions that had been funded by grant money, which is due to dry up.)

The city manager is recommending, essentially, that City Hall work its way out of the hospital business, handing duties like preventative care for lower income residents, the needle exchange and running a sexually transmitted disease clinic over to the nonprofit Portland Community Health Center instead.

[MORE: Grant award triggers debate over which clinic is best suited to treat the homeless]

Jennings argues the already established PCHC will be equipped to absorb the extra work, and be able to use its status as a designated Federally Qualified Health Center to seek greater reimbursements for those services and others.

(Currently, the city is reimbursed through MaineCare at rates ranging from $45 to $145 for in-school health services and the aforementioned needle and STD work, whereas the PCHC, with its federally recognized status, can expect to be reimbursed at a rate of $181.50 across the board. So not only is the city saving money by getting out of the game, but more money will be flowing into the city to cover those services as a result of the shift, the explanation goes.)

The city manager wants City Hall taking care of health policy and oversight, and local health care agencies primarily interacting with patients. According to his presentation to the City Council this week, Portland has been pretty unique among northeastern cities in terms of its hands-on approach to health care.

(From the city manager's budget presentation to the City Council)

(From the city manager’s budget presentation to the City Council)

He’s thinking about employee retention

It’s been well-publicized over the last five years that City Hall has been a place of tremendous turnover. Jennings himself is the fifth one to hold the city manager job since the beginning of 2011, including interims, for instance.

Now he wants the turnstiles to slow down a bit, and he wants to groom the city’s future leaders from within — to build a quality farm system, to use a sports analogy.

To that end, Jennings, a former Boston Celtics and Maine Red Claws exec, is including at least $58,000 in additional funding for in-house professional training and what he’s calling a Leadership Academy for city staff.

[MORE: Why is everybody leaving City Hall? It’s complicated]

“I really think Jon’s private sector experience has really helped us focus on that, investing in people,” said Deputy City Manager Anita LaChance.

Investing in employee retention is also fairly widely recognized as a smart fiscal move, as well. Studies have shown it costs about 20 percent more to replace a worker than to keep him or her, and that percentage grows the more educated and qualified the employee is.

He wants the city to focus on customer service

Another potential benefit of those training investments, Jennings argues, is that the city will get better at dealing with the public it’s built to serve.

“I think what we were doing was spreading our resources so thin we weren’t doing anything with any focus, so we’re trying to get back to core services and do them really well,” Deputy City Manager Anita LaChance said.

He wants similar jobs in similar departments

This overlaps again with the idea of better customer service.

Previously, city inspection and licensing duties were scattered all over the place.

Business licensing folks were in the city clerk’s office, six housing safety officials were working out of the executive branch, and 12 boots-on-the-ground inspectors were up in the planning office, for instance.

Under Jennings’ budget, all those people would be working in a single Permitting and Inspections Department.

[MORE: Portland’s streamlining efforts create ‘smoother path to new jobs and investment’]

The city manager is moving public parks management into the same department as Recreation and Facilities, a change which sees nearly 12 jobs — including park ranger supervisors — come over from the Public Works Department.

Jennings sees the marriage of “Parks” with “Recreation” to be a more natural fit, and one that could help increase public use of the city’s sometimes under-appreciated natural spaces.

Putting people with like responsibilities under the same proverbial department roof could help reduce redundancies and increase coordination. A developer building a mixed use project, for instance, could come knocking on this new department’s door for something like one-stop shopping, as opposed to finding somebody in the executive branch to check out their residential units, somebody else in planning to do a structural inspection and a third person from the clerk’s office to sign off on the restaurant opening downstairs.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.