April 23rd, 2009 5:33 pm | by JAMES PITKIN News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, Multnomah County

Winners and Losers in Wheeler's Proposed County Budget

Wheeler sunglasses

Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler this morning is wheeling out his $883 million proposed 2009-2010 budget. WW got an advance look at which programs he wants to save and which he'd cut as the county struggles under an estimated $42 million budget shortfall.

The district attorney's office, Northeast Portland parents and public-safety advocates are all likely to be pissed off by Wheeler's proposed budget. Expect to hear plenty from them over the coming weeks as the five-member board of commissioners hammers out a final budget to be passed in June.

"I am not going to sugarcoat this budget," Wheeler said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. "It's a really tough budget. There will be something in here that everyone will find objectionable. We can't cut our spending this much and provide the same level of service."

As far as job losses, Wheeler's budget would slice 214 full-time positions from the county's current payroll of about 4,500 — about 4.7 percent. That doesn't mean 214 people would lose their jobs — some of those positions are already vacant, and thus will go unfilled. Still, the cuts won't help a city already struggling with 11.1 percent unemployment.

Wheeler's proposed budget does contain a few nuggets of positive news.

Mental health and addiction services, which face draconian cuts in the state budget, have largely been saved under Wheeler's plan. The Urgent Walk-In Clinic for people in mental-health crisis would stay open but with shorter hours, and most beds for addiction treatment would be spared.

Other programs would not be so fortunate.

Wheeler proposes saving $838,407 by eliminating Touchstone, which provides help for poor families struggling to raise children. That move is likely to bring heat from Northeast Portland communities that benefit most from the program, Wheeler predicts.

Wheeler also proposes cutting the sheriff's office Special Investigations Unit for drug trafficking and prostitution. At $870,000, it provides services Wheeler says are duplicated by other police agencies in the region. Still, it's move likely to rile public-safety advocates.

Also cut from the sheriff's budget would be two dorms at Inverness Jail, leaving 46 fewer beds in the system with 1,367 beds remaining. There is no plan in the budget to open Wapato Jail — something Wheeler promised when he ran for office in 2006. He says now the jail's opening won't be possible without a partnership with the state Department of Corrections, which is facing its own budget catastrophe.

Wheeler blames his inability to keep a campaign promise largely on the economic downtown.

"Would I rather have Wapato open? Absolutely. I would love to have that boondoggle off my back," Wheeler says. "But I'm not going to open it for the sake of opening it. I'm not going to dodge on a campaign promise, but I'm going to open it in a cost-effective way and in a way that is going to reduce crime in our community."

The district attorney's offices faces losing about 23 employees, and Wheeler predicts a hard fight when District Attorney Mike Schrunk battles to restore his funding in the coming weeks.

Schrunk says says it's the worst cut he's seen since taking office in 1981. He hopes to keep the losses in single-digits through talks with the board and finding additional grant funding, but he says he won't put up a fight.

"Multnomah County has never really supported public safety as its No. 1 priority. I understand that," Schrunk says. "If I was a CEO of the county, I probably would have different priorities. But Wheeler's got just an awful job right now. He has an opportunity to help set the course for budget sessions for years to come, and I think he's doing the best he can."

Wheeler hopes to avoid even worse cuts if the board of commissioners votes to raise the car-rental tax from 12.5 percent to 17 percent. The vote is scheduled for May 14. But soon after that, the other shoe will drop.

Yet another round of cuts and lay-offs is likely for the county after the Legislature approves the state budget this summer — Wheeler is predicting additional losses of about $20 million in money the county receives from the state.
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