GARDINER — In 2017, the Gardiner City Council plans to work to encourage economic development, attract and retain people, keep taxes stabilized, partner with municipalities in the region and continue to deliver strong city services.

Those goals are expected to guide actions by city elected officials as they make decisions about city policies and spending plans for the rest of the year.

For the most part, city residents agree with that direction, and several of them said so during a public hearing at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

But before that happened, Mayor Thom Harnett addressed some concerns about the goals that surfaced earlier this year.

During the City Council retreat at the end of January, Hartnett had talked about the need to attract new residents to Gardiner, particularly new Mainers — immigrants and refugees — to alleviate the worker shortage that’s affecting companies in Gardiner and across the region.

That prompted the Maine Republican Party to issue a call to action to its members to call Gardiner city councilors at home to object to its decision to become a “potential sanctuary city.”

Although no specific legal definition exists for a sanctuary city, some communities have decided they will shelter, by formal policy or informal practice, immigrants who live in the United States without documentation from certain federal immigration policies.

At that time and again Wednesday, Harnett clarified that was not his intent.

“Maine is losing its native population at a great rate,” he said, adding that many younger residents are leaving for jobs in other states. “One of the fastest growing populations is the new Mainers, and they are here lawfully. We have noticed that two of our employers, the meat processing plants, have hired a number of new Mainers, and I wanted to work with those employers to see if there is interest in those workers to live here and live in Gardiner and buy homes and help to broaden our tax base.”

He said he wants Gardiner to be known as a welcoming city — not just to new Mainers, but to everyone.

New Mainers also would make Gardiner culturally richer, just as they enrich the state, he said.

During the public hearing, Camille DeSoto said she agreed that Gardiner should be a welcoming community.

“But I also think we should not be a naive community. We need to be careful about who we are accepting,” DeSoto said, particularly when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers.

“There’s a huge black market for passports, visas and green cards,” she said, referring to the credentials that allow citizens of other countries to travel to and become legal residents of the United States. And because of that black market, Gardiner needs to scrutinize who it accepts into the community, she said.

“Gangs align themselves with the religion of Islam, and this is also how they have gained power, by being Muslim and congregating at mosques. I am not saying that Muslims and people from other countries are bad people. What I am saying is we have to understand and be smart in our decision-making. I clearly understand we need them as workforce. But why can’t we cultivate our own workforce?” she said, adding that Maine has a high poverty level that could be helped if businesses would pay higher wages for jobs that are less desirable.

DeSoto said she’s also concerned about the effect on the General Assistance budget that recruiting new Mainers to Gardiner might have.

“A lot of these people come with huge families, eight to 10 children. Although the husband may make, I don’t know, $10- to $15,000 a year, they rely on general assistance to make it. Typically, they end up in Portland or Augusta, Bangor or Lewiston. These are large service centers that have huge budgets for General Assistance.”

Gardiner might not have the budget to support immigrants, she said.

Other speakers said they want Gardiner to be a welcoming community, something that city officials and residents have been working on since 2012, when they embarked on Gardiner’s Heart & Soul in collaboration with the Orton Family Foundation to identify community values that matter most to the people who live there. Among those values is presenting Gardiner as a community that’s friendly to families.

Eileen Hagerman said she took a leap of faith when she and her partner bought their home in Gardiner, and she has found it to be an open and friendly community and one that’s working to develop economically

“I am from Louisville, Kentucky, which is a huge resettlement area,” she said, because Catholic Charities offers migration and refugee services there. Among the immigrants who have settled there are Muslims, Jews and Christians and members of other world religions, and they helped revitalize a declining part of the city, by opening businesses, spending money and attracting tourists. .

“Louisville has become more of a world-class city in the last 20 years. These people are from war-torn countries, and many of these people were child soldiers who have been horribly traumatized, and there have never been any issues. There has been no gang warfare, no religious violence, just hardworking people getting a second chance at life and bettering of the city where they are living.”

Keith Pulley said he appreciated what the council is trying to do. The last four terrorists who have been arrested — one in Canada and three in the United States — were white Christians, he said. “They weren’t brown; they weren’t from Syria. We have as much to fear from people that look like the rest of us as we do from people from Syria or anyplace else,” he said.

George Trask said he worked with Vietnamese refugees as they were coming to the United States 40 years ago.

“They were hard workers. They were dedicated. You knew if you was working with them you could count on them,” he said. “I think it’s probably going to be the same way now. People are all shook up because we’re fighting radical Islam; we’re not fighting the Islamic religion. So let’s give that a chance. We do have to build our population. It’s dropping drastically.”

The council adopted its slate of goals unanimously.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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