In a memo distributed this week, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler urged Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty to speed up the Portland Street Response, a highly-anticipated program that will dispatch a non-police response to certain 911 calls. The fire bureau began training staff for a pilot program on Monday.

“I ask that in your continued role as Commissioner-in-Charge of Portland Fire & Rescue, and chief sponsor of the new program, you find ways to move more quickly toward implementation,” the mayor wrote. “In particular, I ask that you consider creative staffing models which may be more cost-effective and faster to establish, including the peer-led approach that originally attracted both of us to this model.”

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The note was one of four personalized memos that Wheeler distributed to each council member Tuesday related to the bureau assignments he doled out to them last month. In the memos, the mayor outlined the priorities he would like to work with each of his colleagues on including a quicker police response time, more public art to deter graffiti and a faster implementation of the Portland Street Response. The program is being spearheaded by Commissioner Hardesty’s office.

The four-person team will begin in the Lents neighborhood and respond to 911 calls related to people experiencing homelessness or a mental health crisis. But how quickly it’ll be able to scale up beyond one team in one neighborhood is an open question. The council approved the program over a year ago. City officials have put some of the blame for the delay on difficulties with labor negotiations and the hiring freeze the city imposed during the pandemic.

To allow the program to scale up faster, the mayor’s office hopes Hardesty will consider contracting out some of the positions for the program instead of hiring all team members exclusively as city employees, who can be more costly to hire and take longer to bring on board.

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Hardesty disagreed, saying in a statement that the hurdle to scaling up lies not with the city’s hiring process, but likely with the city’s bureau of emergency communications.

“Hiring outside agencies will not speed this process up, as the most significant investment we can make to move faster is to adequately resource our 911 call center through BOEC,” she wrote. “Our 911 dispatchers need this critical infrastructure and proper training to triage these calls, keep our employees safe, and get 911 callers the response they request.”

Hardesty said she is expecting a report at the end of January from Robyn Burek, the program manager for the Portland Street Response, that will outline a plan to scale up the program citywide. And while she was open to “looking at more service models,” she had no interest in contracting out the work.

“What I’m not interested in is subcontracting good jobs out in a field of work that is consistently undervalued and underpaid,” she continued, pointing to a letter the city recently received from local social service providers saying many workers in the region were not making a living wage.

“We have folks working at houseless shelters that are sleeping in cars themselves, and that is unacceptable,” she wrote.

The council is planning on setting up a work session in February on the Portland Street Response for a greater discussion on what the program will look like when it expands beyond the pilot.

Other priorities listed in Wheeler’s four memos include: reopening Bryant Square, a city park that was closed indefinitely in 2018 due safety concerns, creating a more streamlined permitting process, and supporting a new “community safety transition director.”

The city is in the midst of searching to hire someone to streamline and consolidate its public safety bureaus. According to a post on ZipRecruiter, the city’s looking for a “a change agent and strategic leader,” who will guide changes within the various public safety bureaus.

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