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Portland discusses how to spend community donations for asylum seekers

The city's Finance Committee met the evening of Thursday, July 25 to discuss the donations and how to potentially spend them.

PORTLAND, Maine — Portland City Councilors took important steps Thursday night making resolutions regarding the quickly-approaching housing deadline for asylum seekers. 

On July 25, staff met to discuss exactly how finances raised around the Maine community will be spent regarding this ongoing issue.

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In a memorandum handed out to members of the Finance Committee, Finance Director Brendan T. O'Connell expressed that an incredible amount of generosity from the public has helped the "emergency situation" within the city of Portland over the past several months. 

Adequate funding to provide shelter, housing, and basic necessities for asylum seekers did not originally exist within the FY20 budget -- so a campaign was started to solicit donations.

O'Connell wrote that in total, the City of Portland has received more than $900,000 in donations, of which, about $870,000 have been collected. The remaining dollars are pledges, waiting to be processed through PayPal.

Of these donations, $589,000 came from Mainers. People from 266 municipalities statewide pitched in, and about 4,000 people in total donated. 

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O'Connell said City staff is requesting that the donations be appropriated by the City Council into the City's Health and Human Services budget to help care for these asylum seekers, providing them shelter, housing, and basic necessities. Staff is also recommending that some donations go to non-profits and Portland itself for the expenses incurred at the Expo from June 12 to August 15. 

The $870,000 cannot be spent before August 12 -- that is the date set for the City Council to officially vote on how to spend the money. 

"(We're) asking the City Council's Finance Committee to appropriate that $870,000 into the Health and Human Services social services budget," said City Manager Jon Jennings. "That will give city staff discretion to be able to really focus on helping the asylum seekers staying in the family shelter and in the expo...(and) assist them to more permanent housing."

Thursday's progress involved the finance committee unanimously approving a plan to move the funds and determine some ideas as to how to spend them.

The first priority is housing, since asylum seekers are now covered by General Assistance after Gov. Janet Mills' emergency rule change. Portland may also try to find ways to use a portion of the donations to offset the burden of General Assistance on other communities.

RELATED: City leaders to discuss asylum seekers, General Assistance change as deadline looms

"In Portland for instance, we budgeted for this all of the time -- and it's a fairly healthy budget. But other cities and towns that a lot of these folks will be going to live in may not have made that kind of a budget allocation in the course of their budgeting," said Jennings. "So one of the things that we've been talking about internally as staff is through donations, not city funds, that we would be able to seek to assist some of these cities and towns in the early stages of transitions for families who will be moving to their communities."

FEMA is also setting aside a portion of its budget to help cities like Portland that have taken in a number of asylum seekers. Instrumental in securing those funds were Senator Angus King, Senator Susan Collins, and Representative Chellie Pingree. Portland will apply for reimbursement through that program, since it has spent nearly $200,000 in expenditures related to sheltering asylum seekers at the Expo Center.

O'Connell did write that Portland is accepting new families into the Community Support Fund for FY20. It is unclear at this time, however, how much operating the Community Support Fund for the entire fiscal year (based on the number of new arrivals) will cost. 

Thursday's entire memorandum from O'Connell reads as follows: