But Wheeler's first big move less than four months into his job was a strong one. The new chair submitted a bare-knuckle budget last week that accomplished what other county leaders have put off for years: making painful cuts and balancing the books.
Wheeler is trimming $15 million this year—about a 4 percent cut—and $10 million the next. Some cuts have brought him heat. Conservative talk jock Lars Larson derided him for funding work-release furloughs instead of jail beds. And Wheeler's plans to scale down river patrols were scuttled at the last minute when cops and community activists cried foul.
In a sit-down with WW, Wheeler defended his budget choices and discussed his loose-cannon sheriff, Bernie Giusto, as well as Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer.
WW: How many of the county's 4,500 employees will lose their jobs with these cuts?
We don't know yet, because we have 10 collective bargaining units that have their own rules around layoffs and bumping. They'll go back and determine how they're going to do it.
A few dozen? A few hundred?
I don't think it'll be as few as a few dozen. I don't think it'll be as high as a few hundred. That's my guess.
Let's go through some of these cuts. Why'd you eliminate $661,000 from county support for the drunk tank—what's now called the "sobering tank"?
Here's why. The next stage in the process is detox, which is a medical process. The stage after that is treatment. The stage after that is the transition to supportive housing. Those three things—detox, treatment, supportive housing—that's what Multnomah County does. Sobering? That's what the Portland police are for.
You're going to stick that to the city, then.
It's up to them to decide whether or not it's important enough for them to take it up. It used to be a city program. Then it became a city-county program. Now it's a county program. The biggest winner of that service is the Portland police.
In general, should the city step fund more?
I believe that it's in their best interest to step forward and support programs that directly impact the quality of life in the city, like the sobering services. There is a clear case to be made that there is a direct benefit to the city, and the first person to complain about [the county cuts] is Chief Sizer. I think she's a great police chief. But you know what? [The city's] sitting on $37 million of additional revenues.
Are you cutting drug investigators in the Sheriff's Office?
I'm cutting three, according to the budget. Now here's an important nuance. I'm not the sheriff. The sheriff is independently elected. He has the authority to invest his dollars however he wants. So if he believes that those positions are absolutely the most important thing in the world, he can cover them with East County patrol dollars or river patrol dollars or any other dollars he wants. I doubt he'll do that, because he's the one who offered up the [Special Investigations Unit] for cuts.
Did it piss you off when Giusto called a press conference and talked about your budget before you made it public?
No. It's Bernie.
Is he as big a pain in the ass for you as he was for Diane Linn?
No. I grew up with three brothers. Bernie takes me back to those interactions. I can work with him great. The dynamics are challenging, there's no question. We're under different pressures. He's under a lot of pressure from his unions. I'm under a lot of the pressure from the public to get the Wapato Jail open and make the system work. Those pressures are driving us in the same direction. We both have to show that we're spending our public safety dollars wisely. We've both got the ticking clock overhead on Wapato and other issues.
So when will Wapato open?
Wapato Jail will have funding committed by November 2008.
You're looking at a $325 million shortfall over the next 20 years in keeping up the bridges. How dire is the situation?
It is extremely urgent. Our bridge-maintenance fund goes redline in a year. It's really urgent. The Sellwood Bridge is just one of the 27 bridges, viaducts and overpasses that we're responsible for. That one project alone will cost the better part of $200 million. And it's just one.
How long till we start shutting down bridges?
That bridge has about 10 more years of useful life left in it. We're in the middle of the planning part of it, and then we have to go to Washington [D.C.] and make a good, strong, compelling and, I hope, unified case for why Congress should fund that bridge.
Is Lonnie Roberts as lazy as he's made out to be?
I don't think he's lazy at all. I think Commissioner Roberts is old-school, and I don't think he'd be offended if I used that word. I think he'd probably wear that term with pride. He's been involved in public service for over 30-odd years. His constituents love him. It's the prerogative of District Four and their citizens to decide what kind of person they want in that role.
You don't have a problem with him?
He and I have worked very closely together. We built relationships with East County jurisdictions. Lonnie Roberts, whatever else people say about him, he has maintained those relationships on behalf of Multnomah County, and I've been able to latch on to those relationships, which has benefited us tremendously. We have disagreements on how we run our offices. I run my office very, very differently.
When you were campaigning last year, this paper branded you a political dilettante. Is the job different from what you expected?
I think I knew coming into this job what I was up against. The public does not trust government. And I think to a large degree government leaders brought it on themselves. Too many elected officials are hesitant to talk about race and ethnicity and the very big disparities in this community. My administration is going to be about rebuilding public trust.
Wheeler keeps Tibetan prayer flags in his office—souvenirs from the Himalayas, where he summited Mount Everest once and turned back in foul weather on another attempt.
As if Wheeler didn't have enough on his plate, his wife, Katrina, gave birth to their first child, daughter Quinnlan, on Sept. 18.