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February 13th, 2013 AARON MESH | News Stories
 

Fiscal Bluff

The proposed budget cuts city bureaus are betting mayor Charlie Hales won’t make.

news1_3915IMAGE: matthewbillington.com
It’s budget season at City Hall, the time of year when we’re told what a dystopian Portland would look like.

Streets without cops. Homes burning out of control. Empty swimming pools, vagrants sleeping in dry fountains, and a river running dark with neglect.

Mayor Charlie Hales faces a $25 million-plus budget gap and has asked all city bureaus for proposals to cut 10 percent of their spending.

He may have been hoping for an honest accounting. What he got was a scary campfire story.

No city bureau wants to get cut by 10 percent, so many resort to a time-honored tactic: offering up their most beloved programs for sacrifice, betting that city commissioners won’t have the stomach to face angry citizens. 

That’s what happened this year. The ploy usually works—proposed cuts of marquee programs or critical services rarely go anywhere, and the gambit only delays (and conceals) the tough budget choices City Hall must make in trimming its $390 million budget.

This week, the City Council begins a month of budget meetings with all 27 bureaus.

We’ve peered inside the budget proposals and found $13.2 million in cuts the bureaus know will alarm us—starting with the most brazen dares and working down to the politically plausible.


FIRE & RESCUE: CLOSE SEVEN FIRE STATIONS.

Savings: $8.4 million

The bureau is offering to cut more than a quarter of its 30 stations. Closing any of these stations would increase response times to fires and medical emergencies. And, as the bureau warns, any cut increases risk to the lives of Portlanders. (This, from the bureau that has 40 of the city’s 100 highest-paid employees.) 

“When I heard seven fire stations, I just about fell off my chair,” says City Commissioner Dan Saltzman. 

The bureau doesn’t actually name any stations it’s planning to cut. In fact, the proposal says Fire & Rescue brass might need to spend more money—to hire a consultant or buy analysis software—just to pick the stations it might close.

As Saltzman notes, the bureau won’t name the fire stations to be cut because that would create a panic over budget cuts it doesn’t expect to make.

Chances it’ll really happen: We’ll eat our fire helmets.


POLICE BUREAU: ELIMINATE THE MOUNTED PATROL.

Savings: $1 million

City Hall staffers say they know it’s budget season when they look out their windows to a joyous scene: Two officers from the Portland Police Bureau’s Mounted Patrol riding their horses up to City Kids—the downtown day-care center for children of municipal employees—so tykes can pet the beasts’ noses. 

Cops have put the Mounted Patrol back on the list of cuts they’re betting the public won’t like. The popular six-officer unit is a visible presence downtown. The officers are widely considered helpful in calming crowds, dispersing the occasional protest and patrolling parks.

The patrol has been offered up for cuts every year since 2009, saved by an outcry each time. Downtown developer Bob Ball even started a charity, Friends of Portland’s Mounted Patrol, which has raised funds to keep the horses in their Pearl District stables with a waterfront view.

Chances it’ll really happen: Don’t bet against the horses.


WATER BUREAU: SHUT OFF WATER TO ALL 19 DECORATIVE FOUNTAINS.

Savings:: $466,178

Symbolically, it’s an ugly idea. Every major fountain—the Elk on Southwest Main Street, the Skidmore Fountain in Old Town, those otters and bears along Pioneer Courthouse—would go dry.

Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversaw the Water Bureau until last week, says the bureau was following Hales’ directive to preserve core services. The bureau, he says, “had no choice.”

Shutting off fountains that double as kiddie pools—Salmon Street Springs in Tom McCall Waterfront Park and Jamison Square in the Pearl—would have sweltering moms calling the city nonstop in July. And enraged parents would probably call the Parks & Recreation Bureau—not the bureau that actually shut off the water. 

Chances it’ll really happen: One of the bureaus would find 500 grand before the first phone rings. 


HOUSING BUREAU: CLOSE THE CLARK CENTER, A 90-BED HOMELESS SHELTER.

Savings: $424,650

Homeless services are traditionally split between the city (homeless singles) and Multnomah County (homeless families). Ninety of the 677 year-round emergency shelter beds provided by local government are at the Housing Bureau-funded Clark Center on Southeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, underneath the Hawthorne Bridge.

Homeless advocates spent much of past year carrying out hunger strikes and camping in front of City Hall to protest what they call fatal city policies.

This won’t help. The county won’t be happy either— but since the Housing Bureau is still funding the county’s homeless youth services, the city could return the favor.

Chances it’ll really happen: It’s a coin flip. 


POLICE BUREAU: ELIMINATE SCHOOL POLICE FOR PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

Savings: $2.1 million

So, do we have this one straight? Parents are scared witless about their children’s safety and security in schools, and the police want to cut the cops who patrol school buildings?

The Police Bureau’s list of proposed cuts is rife with outrages—we haven’t even mentioned the gutting of the family-services unit, which investigates domestic and child abuse, or reducing the gang-enforcement team.

The budget proposal notes repeatedly that Portland police started providing Portland Public Schools with cops in 2001, and that it’s not really their job. But ending the 23-member team of school resource officers puts Hales in a bind, after the mayor has made school safety a loud priority.

Chances it’ll really happen: If the City Council presses the public-safety bureaus, this unit could go.


PARKS & RECREATION BUREAU: CLOSE BUCKMAN POOL.

Savings: $146,324

Located in the basement of Buckman Elementary School in Southeast Portland, Buckman Pool has become a kind of running joke in City Hall. It has been targeted for cuts since at least 2006, and because it’s tiny and not used very much, it’s the Parks & Recreation Bureau’s most expensive pool to operate per swimmer.

But it’s never actually been cut: The Buckman Community Association raises hell every time the idea comes up.

If the city ever does cut it, the Parks Bureau could just transfer angry callers to the Water Bureau (see dry fountains, above).

Chances it’ll really happen: We think they mean it this time.


BUREAU OF ENVIRONMENTAL SERVICES: GET RID OF THE OFFICE OF HEALTHY WORKING RIVERS.

Savings: $779,368

Yes, this is one bureau suggesting the elimination of another whole bureau. Since its founding in 2009, Healthy Working Rivers has been criticized as redundant.

But it’s an office that could be relevant in 2013, with Superfund and West Hayden Island negotiations ongoing.

And the office has a staunch champion in City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversaw the bureau until delivering it to Hales last week. She’s reportedly furious that Environmental Services—recently under Saltzman’s jurisdiction—would offer it as a sacrifice.

Chances it’ll really happen: This office sleeps with the fishes. 

 
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