As part of its fall budget adjustment process, Portland City Hall is seeking to make a couple of deceptively significant moves. While public debate focuses on how many cops the city needs and how they should fight crime, a quieter effort to reform public safety bureaus from within is accelerating.
City coffers are flush with a $62 million surplus, mostly because of higher than expected revenue from the business license tax.
Half of the windfall will probably go into reserves. But the commissioners in charge of the Portland Police Bureau and Portland Fire & Rescue want to use about $350,000 of the remainder to continue to shake up the city’s most tradition-bound and expensive general fund bureaus. (The police general fund budget in 2022 is $230 million, fire’s is $148 million.)
Before the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty reached rare agreement on making the public safety bureaus more cooperative and efficient (“Double Stitched,” WW, Feb. 26, 2020).
The two frenemies deputized the city’s chief administrative officer, Tom Rinehart, to begin a multiyear process of consolidating administrative functions—budgeting, personnel, etc.—and move toward a combined public safety bureau run by professional managers.
They and their council colleagues also hope to better integrate the city’s two smaller safety bureaus—Emergency Communications and Emergency Management—into a combined public safety operation.
The first major step in that process came April 1, when the city hired former fire chief and Bureau of Emergency Communications director Mike Myers to figure out how to consolidate some of the bureaus’ functions.
In the budget adjustment that the Portland City Council will consider next week, Wheeler and Hardesty propose to move top budget officials from police and a top finance official from fire to the community safety division of the Office of Management and Finance, where they would report to Myers rather than their respective chiefs. The goal is to reduce myopia and equip clannish bureaus with modern management.
“We hear all the time that Portlanders do not want to see their city government working in silos, and I can’t think of anywhere where close collaboration is more important than across our public safety system,” Hardesty says.
Myers is also working to improve the way the public safety bureaus communicate. He would like to see all of them—but particularly the police—be more transparent and responsive to Portlanders.
“It often doesn’t look like the audience for what we’re putting out is the public,” Myers says, adding that he hopes to streamline a balkanized public information effort. “I feel an urgency to get these changes made. They are happening faster than I thought.”