Political analysts and former state senators Ethan Strimling and Phil Harriman discuss the recent revelation that Portland is giving room in shelters to people who have money in the bank.

Phil: Forgive me if this question is too personal. Do you walk around with $20,000 in your checking account?

Ethan: That would be no.

Phil: How about most people in Portland?

Ethan: The average household in Portland earns only $42,000 a year, so I doubt it.

Phil: OK, so when most of us found out that our money provides shelter for people who have tens of thousands of dollars, were you able to empathize with taxpayers who are irritated that their hard-earned money is going to pay for them to have a place to sleep?

Ethan: Sure.

Phil: Usually you won’t let me get in two sentences. This week you won’t give me more than two words. Are you taking one for the welfare advocates, hoping the issue will be gone by next week?

Ethan: Taking one for the welfare advocates? I hope we are all advocates for those in need. While I certainly understand why people are irritated, I am simply not willing to participate in a political football game that could hurt a lot of people in need of assistance.

Phil: I don’t want them hurt, either. That’s why many of us are calling on Mayor Michael Brennan to acknowledge that the system needs fixing. Portland cannot send a bill to Augusta asking for financial aid for people with plenty of money. Time for him use his power to improve the status quo.

Ethan: I agree that this is a moment for leadership and Mike needs to embrace it, but Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian did exactly what you ask: “I am very concerned about this and the costs.” She went on to say the city had developed a list of potential program changes, according to Randy Billings of the Press Herald. I am pleased that she seems to understand the seriousness of the findings and is acting.

Phil: Good for her, but Mike is the mayor. It is infuriating to most of us that he simply won’t say, “This audit has raised some serious issues that I am going to look into.” Brennan never seems willing to acknowledge a mistake, instead he simply wants to deflect blame by saying the governor is picking on him.

Ethan: The governor is picking on him because he is an easy foe. But the truth of the matter is that the system doesn’t need to be thrown out, as the governor seems hellbent on achieving. It needs reform through dialogue, not “gotcha” politics.

Phil: The figures used by the state auditors were found in the Portland files. And the problem of how the city bills the state was brought to their attention a year ago. The mayor has had plenty of opportunity to address these issues. No “gotcha” moments here.

Ethan: Fair enough, but the city was still discussing those issues with the state, and the issue of determining individual income eligibility for every person who knocks on the shelter door has never been questioned in the past.

Phil: Never been questioned? Who in their right mind thinks people with means should get taxpayer support, especially when so many others are desperate? This shouldn’t even be a political debate.

Ethan: It’s not that simple. Having “the means” is only part of the battle with someone who has mental illness. Many of these people likely have serious issues beyond money that get in the way of any private landlord giving them a place to stay. They also may not want social workers lending them a hand.

Phil: Ethan, the audit also showed that 60 people with more than $50,000 in the bank had third-party caregivers. Certainly Mayor Brennan could have directed staff to tell the trustees that this individual will need to cover their own stay in the shelter, instead of billing taxpayers.

Ethan: Certainly something to talk about, but, as I said earlier, those are small fixes. Don’t attack the entire system to create one small fix.

Phil: It appears that the only way to get this mayor to do anything is to thrust the facts in front of his voters, who in turn get his attention. But even then, he appears to revel in claiming he is a victim, much more than of working with the Department of Health and Human Services, especially when the facts show Portland is 5 percent of the state population yet spends 10 times as much on General Assistance as any other city.

Ethan: That’s because the poor know we are one of the few places they can come for help, but you sure do seem to put a lot of the blame on Mayor Brennan. You do know that the position is not particularly powerful. It is not like he can simply fire someone for wrongdoing or change policy on his own.

Phil: I could perhaps forgive him if he were demanding change and the council was blocking his initiatives. But he hasn’t proposed anything, despite knowing the facts for a year. Councilors are actually asking tougher questions than he is.

Ethan: I will agree with you that Mike should have been more prepared for what he was hit with and should have found a way to get out in front of the inevitable attack and crisis. Our weak response has been very damaging to those of us serving the most vulnerable. But exploiting a few people with mental illness for political gain is much worse.

Phil: I served with Mike when he was a legislator. I know firsthand he is a compassionate person with an ability to bring people together. This could be a perfect time to do just that, but so far it looks like your city is paying him $70,000 plus benefits to do nothing but fight for the status quo.

Phil Harriman is a former Republican state senator from Yarmouth. Ethan Strimling is a former Democratic state senator from Portland. They can be contacted on Facebook at Agree to Disagree or Twitter: @senpeh and @ethan6_2.

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