Portland police, fire bureaus paint gloomy picture in budget proposals

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB) and Jonathan Levinson (OPB)
Feb. 3, 2021 9:37 p.m.
Firefighters with Portland Fire and Rescue demonstrate how they would apply fire retardant foam to contain and extinguish an oil train fire.

Firefighters with Portland Fire and Rescue demonstrate how they apply fire retardant foam in this file photo. The city's fire department is warning of substantial service reductions if it is required to cut its general fund revenue by 5%, as proposed by a recent budget exercise.

Anthony Schick / OPB

A fire station. A deputy city attorney. Streetlights on high-crash corridors. These are all city-funded, and all are potentially on the chopping block, according to requested budgets submitted by Portland city bureaus last Friday.


The city’s in a tough spot financially due to the pandemic. Funding streams City Hall relies on from sources like lodging taxes, parking meters and permitting fees have taken a nosedive.

Anticipating a continued dip in revenue over the next fiscal year, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler asked most city bureaus in December to propose budgets that take into account a 5% cut from the city’s general fund.

Discussing what impacts this could have, the mayor did not mince words.

“It’s going to be bad,” Wheeler said Monday in an interview with OPB.

He noted the city had already slashed the general fund budget by about $90 million last fiscal year. All the easy budget cuts were made then, he said, and future layoffs are now “nearly impossible to avoid.”

Portland Fire and Rescue warns of substantial service reductions

The city’s fire bureau painted perhaps the grimmest picture of what a 5% cut in general fund money would mean.

“Fire engines and trucks would be less available, response times would increase, property damage from fire would increase, and survivability on medical emergencies would decrease,” the fire bureau’s budget request stated. “The reductions would also push several of PF&R’s busiest units to an unsustainable level of call volume.”

For the fire bureau, a worst-case scenario cut of 5% in general fund revenue is equivalent to just over $6 million. The bureau’s budget advisory committee wrote it could get there, albeit “reluctantly,” by slashing six support positions, decommissioning the nearly century old and still operational Campbell Fire Boat commemorating a chief who died in a building collapse, eliminating all four rapid response vehicles that respond to less severe calls in East Portland, closing one fire station, and partially closing another station.

These cuts, which the bureau warned would certainly lead to longer call times, come as the mayor is pushing for a speedier 911 response. The memo stated the fire bureau is currently slower than two minutes from its goal call response time, and is responding to 90% of high-priority calls within 5 minutes and 20 seconds. It’s a lag time that can cost lives.

“If PF&R were able to meet the desired response goals, up to 20 to 30 more residents of the City of Portland presenting in cardiac arrest might survive,” the bureau wrote.

Wheeler said spending reductions are a chance to re-envision the public safety bureaus and how the city responds to emergency calls. For example, he said, the city could reduce the number of calls coming into 911 by investing in the 311 non-emergency phone system.

“This budget crisis — I hate to say it is an opportunity, but maybe more accurately it’s now forced us to confront some really provocative and important questions about how we want to organize our services going forward to serve the community’s needs.” he said.

Portland Police Bureau seeks to cut down on overtime costs

In a year already marked by budget cuts amid an uprising against racist policing, the Portland Police Bureau also contended with record setting overtime demands, a preexisting staffing shortage and unusually high retirement rates.


The bureau’s 2021-22 fiscal year total budget request comes in at $226.8 million, around 4% of the city’s total budget. To help meet the mandated budget cuts, police have targeted overtime.

Police officers racked up nearly $7 million in overtime last June and July alone, a 200% increase from the year before.

At the time, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people showed up for nightly demonstrations in downtown Portland. The huge overtime demand wasn’t all due to protests, however. At the end of 2020, only 290 of the bureau’s 603 sworn officers were assigned to patrol, making it difficult to meet minimum staffing requirements without leaning heavily on overtime. To reduce the costly overtime demand, Chief Chuck Lovell announced that starting in February, he would reassign a number of officers in specialty units like K9, traffic and the Rapid Response Team back to patrol.

“You need around 400 [officers] to not spend any money on overtime,” said Hunzeker, president of the Portland Police Association union. “These officers that are being integrated into the precincts aren’t adding to the numbers. They’re subtracting overtime hours.”

Hunzeker said that the daily overtime cost may go down, but the result won’t be an improvement in call response times. The police bureau has come under scrutiny in recent months as its response times have ballooned, reaching a peak in August of more than 16 minutes, on average, for high priority calls. By January 2021, that had come down to an average of just over 11 minutes. The bureau’s goal is five minutes or less, a target it hasn’t met since at least January 2012, which is the oldest data available.

This isn’t a new problem or a new solution for the bureau. In its 2016-17 fiscal year budget proposal, the bureau described a staffing crisis, citing a large number of vacancies, high rates of retirement and an inadequate number of patrol officers as impacting officers’ ability to do their job well.

“Due to the current staffing shortage in patrol, the bureau reassigned 21 officers and three sergeants from specialty units to precinct patrol functions in mid-October 2016,” the five year old budget proposal explains.

In 2020-21, pension calculations also led to higher retirement rates than usual. Pensions are calculated based on an officer’s pay for the previous 365 days. Normally, a 365-day span consists of 26 pay periods.

“Because of the way the math works on those years, every once in a while it can be figured on 27, which increases your pension by $100 a month,” Hunzeker said. “But $50-$100 every month for the rest of your life is a lot of money.”

In a rare fluke, that happened twice only a few months apart in August 2020 and January 2021, leading to 80 sworn members retiring.

The Portland Police Bureau’s staffing troubles are unlikely to resolve anytime soon. Bureau leadership took $4.7 million originally meant for new hires and reallocated it to fund other requirements.

“The bureau will only be able to hire in FY 2021-22 if an existing employee separates and creates a new vacancy,” the proposal reads.

The staffing shortages, the bureau said, are likely having an impact beyond just slower than average call response times.

On average, the bureau’s case clearance rate has been steadily declining since 2015, meaning detectives are solving fewer cases.

Portland has about 5,000 burglaries a year, according to Detective Division Commander Jeff Bell. To investigate all those burglaries, he estimates it would require between 50 and 60 detectives. After some detectives were reassigned to homicide in response to a spike in killings last year, only two of the city’s 72 detectives were assigned to burglary.

“If you have more people you can assign more cases,” Bell said. “The more cases you assign, the better chance they’re going to clear them.”

Other cuts in Portland

Among other changes, the city attorney’s office proposed eliminating a deputy city attorney position, a cut that could hinder the city’s legal efforts as attorneys battle an influx of lawsuits related to protests. The transportation bureau said it would have to install 850 fewer streetlights than initially projected under an initiative to add lighting along high-crash corridors. The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability proposed nearly $400,000 in salary cuts.

But these cuts may not all be necessary. The mayor said he had heard “rumbles of hopefulness” that the city’s economic future might not be as grim as originally been forecasted when he asked the bureaus to constrict by 5%. The city will receive the latest forecast from city economists in early March. The mayor will propose a budget in late April based on those economic forecasts, and the council will vote to adopt it in late June.

“It’s possible that the revenues won’t decline as much as originally anticipated,” Wheeler said. “I’m hoping for that, but we’ll see.”