Ryan and Gonzalez Ditch Aspirations for $800 Million Fire and Parks Bureau Bond

The bond would have likely encountered steep political resistance.

COLD SHOULDER: Ted Wheeler, Rene Gonzalez and Dan Ryan (L-R). (Blake Benard)

Two Portland city commissioners who in December said they were seeking to place an $800 million bond on the November 2024 ballot to fund the parks and fire bureaus have since dropped the plan.

City Commissioners Rene Gonzalez and Dan Ryan—who run Portland Fire & Rescue and Parks & Recreation, respectively—said earlier this year they were exploring placing the $800 million bond on the November ballot to chip away at hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of deferred maintenance, particularly across the city’s parks system, and to build a new training facility for firefighters.

But the two members of the City Council have, less than two months later, dropped the idea. Gonzalez and Ryan told members of the Portland Metro Chamber late last month they would not pursue the bond for this fall’s ballot.

Senior policy adviser to Ryan, T.J. McHugh, said the commissioner was “still exploring the bond” but had “not finalized timing.” Gonzalez’s chief of staff did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gonzalez and Ryan would have likely met political resistance to such a steep bond. Fielding complaints about the region’s already high tax rate, Gov. Tina Kotek asked in December that local governments implement no new taxes for three years. Moreover, recent polling shows voters are unhappy with how slowly Multnomah County and the city of Portland have disbursed the hundreds of millions of tax dollars the two governments have garnered in recent years from homelessness, preschool and clean energy taxes.

Ryan tells WW that he has been encouraging Mayor Ted Wheeler to meet with Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson and with Metro President Lynn Peterson to discuss how to “rightsize” regional taxes: “If that happened, and the tax burden came down, then we’d have an opportunity to look at investments that Portlanders seem very positive about.”

That these two particular members of the City Council, two of the more conservative among their colleagues, would propose such an expensive bond speaks to the pickle city bureaus find themselves in: While the region is awash in tax dollars for specific uses such as homelessness, city bureaus are struggling to shore up budget shortfalls.

For example: Just last week, the fire bureau proposed a $3.1 million cut to the annual budget of Portland Street Response, a popular non-police response program housed in the bureau. That prompted an offer by City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the overflowing coffers of the city’s clean energy tax, to offer $3 million from interest earned on that fund to shore up the proposed Portland Street Response cut. In response, Gonzalez asked that the entirety of the $12 million in earned interest on that fund go to the fire bureau to avoid a potential $11 million in cuts, The Oregonian reported.

Rubio announced late last year she would funnel an additional $540 million in unanticipated Portland Clean Energy Fund revenues over a five-year span to a hodgepodge of climate-related programs within city bureaus. Some proponents of PCEF bristled at the notion that city leaders were offering up a fund meant for specific uses—climate change resiliency, job training for BIPOC communities and clean energy infrastructure—to help backfill the operating budgets of city bureaus.

The fight over how to use so many unanticipated tax dollars is likely to take on renewed zest as both Rubio, Gonzalez and a third member of the City Council, Commissioner Mingus Mapps, vie to become Portland’s next mayor.

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