The city of Portland's Budget Office delivered some factual analysis this afternoon to answer questions that arose in a contentious Oct. 28 hearing on midyear budget adjustments.
In that hearing, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty proposed cutting $18 million from the city's most expensive general fund agency, the Portland Police Bureau, and shifting the money to a variety of economic assistance programs for Portlanders struggling to put food on their tables and stave off eviction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly enthusiastically seconded Hardesty's proposal, which came in the form of an amendment to the annual budget adopted in June as part of the regularly scheduled fall budget monitoring process (also called the fall bump).
On Oct. 28, other commissioners introduced various amendments as well, but the vast majority of the six-hour hearing came in the form of public testimony, most of it in favor of Hardesty's cuts.
At one point during the testimony, Eudaly responded to a member of the public who raised concerns about the impact of the cuts.
"This budget cut would not require a single reduction in current personnel," she said. "It would require the bureau to cut vacant positions. Whether you support this amendment or not, please understand this will not result in less police officers."
Following public testimony, Hardesty demanded a vote on her amendment that evening, but in testy council discussion, Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is the police commissioner, and Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Ryan all said they needed more information and asked city budget director Jessica Kinard to run the numbers.
This afternoon, Kinard produced a 12-page memo. Kinard found cutting $18 million would indeed result in layoffs.
"CBO finds it likely that the bureau would need to reduce staff to balance to this level of a reduction at this time," her memo says.
"CBO cannot speak to the service level impacts of a reduction in staffing, nor the size and scope of the required reduction. This would require more analytical information than we have time to compile, and also would ultimately be informed by the bureau and the commissioner in charge."
The bureau is already facing a deficit for the year of about $4 million, Kinard found, because overtime and retirement costs are far higher than budgeted. She also explained that many contracted services would be difficult to trim, leaving personnel costs, which account for 76% of the budget, as the place to find savings.
But Kinard also noted that reducing police head count fits the direction in which at least two of the commissioners want to go.
“A reduction in police staffing is not necessarily out of alignment with the goals of some members of council, and a midyear reduction of this magnitude would force an immediate reexamination of the size and scope of the bureau,” she wrote. “However, it is worth also noting that implementing staffing reductions almost halfway through the fiscal year would require eliminating about twice the number of positions to capture an annualized savings target.”
Hardesty said she’d reviewed Kinard’s memo but remains undeterred in her desire for deep, structural change. “I will still be pushing for $18 million or a counterproposal that makes sense,” she says. “We need the Police Bureau to adjust what the community wants them to do.”
Hardesty adds that she believes PPB has long put off right-sizing its budget. The bureau has operated with dozens of vacancies in recent years and used the funding for those vacancies to pay for overtime at what Hardesty and others say is an unsustainable rate.
“If the cuts require layoffs, I don’t think that’s a horribly bad thing,” Hardesty says. “My plan is to move us to the place where we reimagine what community safety looks like. If we don’t start that process now, we’re just delaying the inevitable.”
Eudaly says Kinard’s memo “highlights how complicated and opaque the police budget is.
“Commissioner Hardesty had initially offered specific line item cuts that did not involve layoffs. She removed them to leave more flexibility for the mayor and bureau. It may be that our colleagues decide that $18 million is too ambitious,” Eudaly says.
“They’re free to come back with a counterproposal,” she adds. “And I’m frankly surprised that Commissioner Hardesty and I were the only commissioners working on a cut and reinvestment package, considering the ongoing public outcry for this very approach. I believe there are significant cuts that could be made without layoffs, but that will require the mayor and the bureau to carefully reallocate resources.”
The council is scheduled to revisit the budget adjustment on Thursday at 2 pm, by which time Wheeler and Eudaly will know whether they’ve been elected to second terms or replaced by Portland voters.