Should government spend taxpayer money to spur the economy and create jobs, even if it means increasing debt? Or, should politicians be as fiscally conservative as possible, these days, and avoid debt?
That may sound like the current debate in Congress. But Portland commissioners tackled the dilemma at City Hall Tuesday morning.
City auditors presented Portland leaders with a sweeping audit showing mounting debt and long-term obligations.
As city audit director put it, "this report is in some says a wake-up call saying 'Look at the amount of debt, look at the amount of where we're spending taxes'."
That's city audit director, Drummond Kahn. He says the city is on stable financial footing, but pensions and urban renewal debt are eating up more and more of the city budget.
The audit pushed city commissioners to explain their spending choices.
"It's the challenge of talking about debt we see at the federal level," Nick Fish said.
Commissioner Nick Fish said that unlike the debate in Congress, the recent audit could lead to a one-sided discussion in the city.
"I think what we inadvertently risk doing is presenting the public with one side of the ledger on debt, and saying 'the debt's growing' without a corresponding discussion of what the debt has produced as a benefit."
Fish argued that rising urban renewal spending is an investment. Other commissioners noted that some debts were forced by court decisions, or compliance with state or federal law.
Mayor Sam Adams said cities can make smart investments, too – like a student getting a loan. "You know, if I improve my marketability as a worker, I can make more money, and therefore better afford the debt and other future decisions I make. I think yours was an audit, a fiscal audit, but one way is to grow and strengthen our economy."
Audit director, Drummond Kahn, agreed that a brighter economy could help. "But overall, a lot of the city's spending has been longer term than the particular downturns we've talked about."
The city's Office of Management and Finance plans to measure the city's debt, year-to-year. And officials are developing a strategy to focus on funding unmet needs, before spending on new ones.