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March 9th, 2005 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

The Ghosts of City Hall

Portland's budget battle focuses on a phantom menace.

     
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City Hall is haunted!

Vanished officials and employees wander the corridors. The specter of an "office support specialist III" lingers, forever condemned to write reports mere mortals can't read. A phantom "turf maintenance technician" mows invisible grass. And there's a squadron of ghost cops so big, you'd think the Four Horsemen were planning to lead a Critical Mass ride.

These vacant jobs are among the hundreds that exist on the city's employment rolls. The bureaucrats who used to hold the posts are gone, but not-at least in some cases-financially forgotten.

City Council's four commissioners are in the midst of crunching Portland's budget numbers, trying to slice five percent off of city spending. First-year Mayor Tom Potter has turned the commissioners loose to scrutinize the city's many bureaus in public hearings, revolutionizing a process his predecessor, Vera Katz, played close to the vest.

Over the past two weeks, commissioners have zeroed in on the city's roster of vacant positions. According to a February survey by the city's Bureau of Human Resources, just about every city department harbors empty jobs. Some have scores of vacancies.

Not all cost the city money. In some cases, though, salaries for abandoned posts are still included in bureau budgets. Bureaus use the money for other activities, even as the jobs they supposedly bankroll remain vacant-sometimes for years.

Faced with the prospect of painful cuts to city services-there's talk of switching off one bulb in each of downtown's two-headed streetlights and shutting down swimming pools-commissioners think the ghost corps could be a gold mine of savings.

Take the Police Bureau, where according to an analysis by the city's Financial Planning Division, 65 sworn officer positions stand empty but funded.

"They'll tell you they're ramping up to hire for some of them," says Commissioner Randy Leonard. "They've used that money to do things that aren't approved by City Council. They hired a stable-tender at their horse barn."

Instead of cutting vacancies, the Police Bureau proposes eliminating its auto-theft task force and cops-in-schools program, among other moves. Leonard, for one, is not amused. He believes eliminating police vacancies would save about $3.6 million, some of which would go back in the cops' budget to pay for overtime and fund jobs for officers coming off disability. (Many current vacancies came about when officers went out with illness or injury.)

Last week, when Leonard and Commissioner Dan Saltzman faced more than a dozen uniformed officers in a budget hearing, Leonard says City Hall's Rose Room "got pretty warm."

"The party's over," Leonard says. "We're going to budget for how we actually spend money. There will be a budget approved by the council that [bureaus] will actually stick to. We want to know, if we give you a million dollars, what you're going to spend it on."

Another ghost-busting showdown is likely this Wednesday, when Leonard and Saltzman hold the first hearing on the city's Parks and Recreation bureau. As of last Friday, the bureau-which caused a small uproar among citizens when it proposed closing neighborhood community centers-had 17 empty positions.

Randy Webster, who manages the Parks' budget, confirms the bureau has moved salary money around.

"City financial policy is that directors can use that money in the short term," Webster says. "Often, positions will be held open so that as other positions are cut, warm bodies can land in jobs and the number of people who actually lose jobs due to budget cuts is minimized."

Webster adds that many of the vacant Parks jobs haven't been filled because the bureau is in the midst of reorganizing. He says dollars budgeted for empty jobs have given the bureau flexibility to deal with rising utility costs, program-fee shortfalls and other expenses.

That argument isn't likely to find a sympathetic audience in a City Council eager to preserve direct services to citizens. If City Hall's invisible army does get massacred in this spring's budget battles, some say it will be a measure of how much Potter has changed the annual task of balancing the books.

"No way this issue would have been looked at before the way it's being looked at now," says one City Hall staffer. "You just didn't have a chance to sit bureau directors down to ask hard questions."

 
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