Emails Between the City and Its Three Enhanced Service Districts Show Bitterness Over Homelessness, City Inaction and Public Scrutiny

“As representatives of organizations that donate millions of private ratepayer funds to provide additional services to our city, and to be spoken about in the manner to which this survey as an official form of city action, is frankly, offensive.”

GOOD FENCES: Setting up for the Pioneer Courthouse Square holiday tree lighting. (Chris Nesseth)

The city of Portland has three districts in which business owners agree to pay a fee for extra cleanup and security services. Such pacts are called enhanced service districts. Each is operated by a nonprofit established by business owners in that district. Clean & Safe operates downtown, Central Eastside Together covers the inner eastside, and the third, named simply Lloyd, lies in the Lloyd District in Northeast Portland.

The districts have long been controversial, with critics painting them as an easy way for citizens with resources to buy additional services and the city’s attention that average Portlanders can’t while making life harder for the city’s unhoused. Meanwhile, business owners who pay for the districts have regularly expressed displeasure with the quality of services they receive.

City Hall is conducting a community review after a scathing 2020 audit by City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero found transparency issues within the districts and lackadaisical oversight and guidelines by city officials. The audit caused some hard feelings. (Two of the three ESDs have renewed contracts with the city under the audit. Lloyd is expected to renew its contract next year.)

That tension is outlined in a series of recent emails to the mayor’s office in which the districts complained the city was scrutinizing their work instead of thanking them for performing tasks the city should be doing.

The emails, obtained by WW via a public records request, showcase the bitter frustration of business groups that believe government officials are failing to address open drug use and sidewalk camping on the streets of Portland. And lodged in the emails are occasional hints that the city is failing to uphold its end of the contract—suggesting that formal mediation could follow.

However, Jon Isaacs, vice president of government affairs for the Portland Business Alliance, says some of that tension may have subsided in recent months.

“Since all three of [the districts] united to express our frustration with the lethargic return of basic services to our districts,” Isaacs tells WW, “downtown Portland has seen a renewed sense of urgency across multiple bureaus.”

Below are verbatim excerpts from the emails sent by Portland Business Alliance president and CEO Andrew Hoan and the districts since the beginning of this year. SOPHIE PEEL.

June 27, 2022: Hoan writes Mayor Ted Wheeler about a public survey asking Portlanders about their opinions of the districts. The districts, asked to distribute the survey, take great offense to the questions in it.

“As this is the first time the three ESDs have acted together in a formal transmission to any of our recent memories, I hope you can appreciate the severity to which we regard this survey and its embedded bias towards our organizations,” Hoan writes. “As representatives of organizations that donate millions of private ratepayer funds to provide additional services to our city, and to be spoken about in the manner to which this survey as an official form of city action, is frankly, offensive.”

Attached to Hoan’s letter is a five-page dissection of the survey questions by the districts, pointing out perceived bias and unprofessionalism by the city. One of the questions asks respondents to rate their level of agreement with the statement: “Though not perfect, historically enhanced service districts overall have had a positive impact on the community.” “Why would a survey use this type of subjective framing?” the districts asked. “Wouldn’t it influence a person’s response?”

The districts decline to distribute the survey.

Sept. 28, 2022: The three districts send a joint letter to the mayor’s office outlining their grievances. Complaints include:

Increased costs of measures to improve transparency due to the audit: “The increased budgeted expenses related to these line items are largely because of audit implementation. These costs have doubled since the audit. While the costs have doubled, we cannot indicate how we are receiving double the customer service, or services in any of these areas. As we are privately funded through rate payer fees, it is critical that we can articulate to our boards the return on investment.”

City’s failure to uphold its end of the bargain: “While the ESDs are committed to delivering on our defined scopes of work that are defined as ‘Enhanced’, the near total absence of any of the ‘Basic’ services promised by the city provides a gargantuan gap in the experience of the district by our ratepayers and all those who use our districts. In the absence of City, County, Metro and State services, our districts have become overly dependent on providing front line services. They were not designed to do this. However, because of the systems failures across all these governments, we are often placed in the position to fill the service gaps.”

The city’s botched survey: “The release of the city survey which treated ESDs as a problem to be fixed, and the listening sessions that were conducted that uniformly represented inputs by the very few with highly motivated political agendas, the ESDs have not been treated as the high performing partner that they are.”

A threat: “If substantial progress is not made by the city and its partner governments in restoring basic services, and accountability reporting on these obligations, as required in our renewals and under the auspices of the audit’s required transparency, the city would be in breach of its obligations.”

And a plea: “Lastly, while it may seem self-serving, a simple and occasional ‘thank you’ to the ratepayers who fund out of their own and voluntary considerations, the services that remove needles, biohazards, provide public safety and enhance livability, would benefit from recognition and not be taken for granted. An absence of the districts were they to be disbanded, would result in a massive absence of services in our more impactful commercial districts.”

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