Portland Shows Its Math Behind the Cost of Switching to a New Form of Government

Because of press questions regarding the ambiguity of transition costs, the city created a document summarizing where its cost estimates came from.

On Nov. 8, Portlanders voted to adopt a new form of government. The Portland City Council will expand to 12 members; bureaus and city functions will be run by a city administrator and overseen by the mayor, who will no longer be a member of council; and three council members will be elected in each of four geographic districts.

City officials have roughly two years to overhaul the form of governance, draw geographic boundaries and restructure how the city functions. They estimate the switch will cost between $4.1 million and $5.9 million a year over a three-year period—that is, between $12.3 million and $17.7 million in total.

At a city-held press conference the day after election night, city staff struggled to answer questions from the press about how they had come up with that cost estimate.

Last week, following a request by WW, the City Budget Office created an explanatory document to track how it came up with that estimate. Staff explained these were not official budget documents but instead estimates subject to change depending on what happens over the next few years.

Below are the major takeaways:

1. The Budget Office was first asked by the 20-member Charter Commission in May to come up with cost estimates based on where the commission appeared to be headed with its proposal.

“These figures are the ones that have been used in the ballot measure language and in all communications since that time,” the document states. That’s an important footnote—because challengers of the measure prior to the election raised, and continue to raise, questions about the cost estimates and their veracity. At least one group is exploring filing a lawsuit over the measure.

2. The Budget Office estimates that establishing new council offices in the four geographic regions will cost between $3.4 million and $5.2 million over the three-year transition period.

That includes: “one-time moving and construction costs associated with the required new office space as well as some Council member transition costs. Cost assumptions include costs related to furniture, conference rooms, security improvements, permits and fees, storage, and project management. They also include other transition costs such as personnel onboarding costs, computers and related technology costs, and swearing-in ceremonies.”

3. The city must coordinate with Multnomah County to oversee the switch to a ranked-choice voting system. That includes software costs (an estimated $500,000 to $1.5 million) and one to three employees hired to assist the county in implementation ($300,000 to $1 million.) It also includes voter outreach of around $850,000. The same staff hired to oversee the elections transition will also be responsible for outreach, according to the document—so additional staff are not budgeted in for outreach specifically.

4. The Budget Office estimates that the annual costs of the Small Donor Elections Program could actually decrease by as much as $1 million every four years once the new charter is implemented. “Cost estimates were provided by the [program] and assume a decrease in costs primarily as a result of the elimination of the Primary Election as well as an assumed reduction in program caps as a result of moving to district-based councilor elections.”

5. Transitioning to a city administrator-managed government is the heftiest transition cost: between $2.5 million and $3.2 million annually for three years. That includes contracting with outside legal counsel and hiring other consulting firms.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the Small Donor Elections Program would save about $1 million per year under the new form of government. That’s based on the document produced by the Budget Office. Susan Mottet, director of the program, says that’s incorrect. The program could save about $1 million every four years. “The savings from eliminating the runoff election and making Council races district-based instead of citywide could offset the increased cost of electing 12 instead of 4 Councilmembers. However, it does assume City Council decreases the City Council match caps, in accordance with their not having to run Citywide anymore,” Mottet says. “So, how City Council changes those match caps determines whether the savings comes in or not.”

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.