Portland City Council Thursday approved a host of changes to the mayor’s budget for the next fiscal year, settling the biggest fight of this year’s budget season: The Portland Street Response — a pilot program that dispatches unarmed first responders to 911 calls related to people experiencing homelessness or in a mental health crisis — will not receive enough funding in the year that starts July 1 to scale up citywide.
Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposed $5.7 billion budget allocated nearly $1 million to fully fund the pilot in the Lents neighborhood in Southeast Portland. But Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who spearheaded the Portland Street Response, had asked for $3.6 million, the amount needed to bring the program citywide with six teams in the next fiscal year.
The Portland Street Response is currently limited to one team in Lents. Another team is expected to begin in August that will also work nights and weekends.
As expected, Hardesty introduced an amendment to the budget Thursday that would have guaranteed the fire bureau the $3.6 million it had requested to roll out the street response program across Portland starting next March.
The amendment failed with only Commissioner Carmen Rubio joining Hardesty in support. Wheeler and commissioners Dan Ryan and Mingus Mapps opposed the change, all saying they wanted to ensure the program was successful before scaling up.
As it became clear the amendment would fail, Hardesty read a letter written by Portland Street Response staff, who sharply criticized the opposing council members for keeping the door open to outsource the staff for the program. The mayor’s office has said in the past it wanted Hardesty to consider contracting out some of the positions for the program instead of exclusively staffing it with city employees, who can be more costly to hire and take longer to bring on board.
“When you say methodical, what we hear is status quo,” the letter read. “... What we hear you really say is you want to stall the rollout and have more flexibility later on, potentially outsourcing our jobs to a nonprofit that would pay us significantly less.”
Much of the testimony at the city’s Thursday budget hearing urged the council to support full funding for the program during the coming budget cycle and accused the mayor of failing to heed the calls of last summer’s protesters who demanded the city invest in alternatives to police.
“Those folks are being stymied. And your attempts, Mayor Wheeler, to slow-roll the expansion of this program and allocate additional funds to just the same old police — it seems at best like a political ploy and at worst to me it seems grossly negligent,” testified local attorney Nels Vulin.
Mapps, Ryan, and Wheeler all said they want to see a “methodical” rollout of the Portland Street Response program. The mayor’s budget directs program managers to report back to City Council at the six-month and one-year mark on its performance.
Hardesty sided with Portland Street Response staff in her own comments, accusing her colleagues of intentionally slow walking the program so the city can later outsource the work.
“When my council colleagues were told my project budget to fully fund Portland Street Response citywide was $14.5 million, discussions about slowing down and outsourcing began,” she said.
Wheeler said he felt opponents of his budget had created a “false binary choice” between rolling the program out now citywide or placing it on a slow track. He called the conflict a “manufactured division.”
“I’m not trying to be cheap,” he said. “I’m trying to get it right.”
Mid-way through the City Council session, Mapps crafted a budget amendment saying if the council later chose to staff Portland Street Response with workers from outside the city, the council would ensure employees “are paid a living wage.” All council members voted against it, saying it was premature.
Mapps, who oversees the dispatch of 911 calls to the Portland Street Response as the commissioner in charge of the Bureau of Emergency Communications, said he was “deeply concerned” about rolling out the program in its current form, but emphasized that the money to expand had been put in a set aside account.
“We can expand it any given Wednesday,” he said.
There were several other notable changes made to the City Council budget approved on Thursday.
- The council agreed to change the direction in Wheeler’s budget to strengthen language that gives the Independent Police Review a firm end date of June 30, 2023. That gives the city two years to put together the police oversight board voters approved last November. The previous version of the budget had given no firm end date for IPR. City auditor Mary Hull Caballero fought back, arguing the note was too vague and gave her staff no job security.
- The council directed the police bureau to provide a progress report on its Public Safety Support Specialist program, which has unarmed Portland Police Bureau officers respond to nonemergency calls. The mayor’s budget proposed tripling the size of the program. The council voted to hold off on allocating additional funding to the program until there was an analysis of it. “The Community Safety Transition Director, City Budget Office, and Police Bureau are directed to work together to propose a set of performance measures that will track outcomes of the program on an ongoing basis,” the amended budget reads.
- The council agreed to put $250,000 toward a Truth and Reconciliation process to address historic wrongs committed by the city’s police bureau against people of color. The Portland Committee for Community Engaged Policing recommended last June that the city speed up the creation of such a commission.
The adopted budget passed unanimously. A final vote will take place in June. It goes into effect July 1.