February 18th, 2011 | by NIGEL JAQUISS News | Posted In: Politics, City Hall, Multnomah County

State of the City: Long and Confusing

Sam Adams

 

Mayor Sam Adams broke some news in his third state of the city address today at Portland City Club.

In order of importance, Adams proposed a new urban renewal district centered on Portland State University; announced the hiring of Patrick Quinton as the new executive director of the Portland Development Commission; and offered for the city to take the duty of patrolling the rivers off Multnomah County's hands. That last move by the city on river patrol would let the county shift savings of about $1 million to human services, according to the mayor.

The urban renewal proposal marks a reduced ambition from an earlier effort to create a gerrymandered section of downtown that came to be called "the lobster district" because of its unusual shape. Adams has correctly identified PSU as an engine of the city's growth but proposing a district that primarily benefits a thriving public university is just the latest iteration of the city's creative approach to urban renewal, which by statute is supposed to benefit "blighted" areas.

The naming of Quinton, who headed PDC's business and industry recruitment, continues a familiar pattern in Adams' personnel choices. Each of the past three high-profile hires he's made—police chief Mike Reese; Portland Bureau of Transportation Director Tom Miller; and Quinton have been internal promotions of existing city employees. Quinton, who joined PDC about three years ago (and is technically hired by the appointed PDC commissioners), is highly regarded by city officials and others who have dealt with him. But like Reese and Miller, he represents a perpetuation of the existing order. As an elected official, Adams has shown a reluctance to hire people from outside his comfort zone who might challenge the status quo. 

And the offer to take over patrolling the rivers serves at least two goals: it gives the Portland Fire Bureau more to do with the high-powered new boat Fire Commissioner Randy Leonard acquired last year and it puts County Chairman Jeff Cogen in an awkward spot: if Cogen accepts the offer, he'll irk Sheriff Dan Staton, whose agency currently patrols the river (and whom Adams called "Stanton") and he'll owe Adams a favor for the $1 million; if Cogen, a potential 2012 mayoral race rival, rejects the offer, he'll appear to be protecting a questionable prerogative at the expense of vulnerable citizens. (One final note on Cogen: the county chairman had left the event by the time Adams acknowledged his presence toward the end of the speech.)

Adams also proposed lightly-defined "Neighborhood Opportunity Districts," which sound something like smaller-scale urban renewal districts. And the mayor said the city was issuing a request for proposals for grocery stores that want to irrigate the "food deserts" that exist in low-income sections of Portland.

The bulk of Adams' hour-long speech illustrated another of his favorite approaches: the laundry list. He covered an astonishing number of topics and interest groups, from German investors to the homeless, being careful all the while to limit himself from laying down too many metrics by which his performance might be measured. (In his first "State of the City" speech in 2009, Adams promised to cut Portland's dropout rate in half by 2013. He has yet to move the needle on that endeavor.)

Two favorite interest groups were notably absent from Adams' speech, however: cyclists and those who create and support the arts. It's possible that the mayor, who is up for re-election next year, thinks those two groups are already in the bag.

His speech was strongest in the beginning. He led off with an extended explanation of the city's relative financial strength, which he attributed to efficiencies and tough negotiations on eight union contracts with different city employee groups. He expects the city to start the fiscal year with money in the bank.

"Let me repeat this," Adams said. "We start next year’s budget with a one-time $22 million surplus."

But Adams undermined some of that fiscal probity with a fuzzy-math explanation of how spending $500 million on fast-tracked infrastructure projects actually saved taxpayers money.

"In 24 months, we fast-tracked almost five years' worth of work, half a billion dollars in construction contracts—nearly three times previous annual spending levels. It helped an estimated 2,000 people keep their jobs or get back to work, and thanks to lower bids in this recession—we saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars," Adams said.

Only in Portland could a public official characterize spending half a billion dollars as an example of fiscal discipline.



 
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