Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has proposed ditching a controversial $25-million, five-year renewal of a contract for security and cleaning services downtown.
The proposal came during a hearing on whether the city should agree to a new contract with Downtown Clean & Safe, a nonprofit that provides extra security and sanitation services to a 213-block area of the central city. These extra services include private security guards, support for the area’s businesses, and clean-up crews. In the last year, according to a city release, these crews collected over 73,000 bags of garbage and scrubbed away 41,0000 graffiti tags.
Instead of moving forward with a revamped contract with Downtown Portland Clean & Safe- the fruit of months of negotiation between city officials and the city’s biggest business chamber - Hardesty said Thursday she wants to extend the current agreement for at least one year. She said this will give the city a chance to address deeper concerns over the existence of enhanced services districts, specific zones where property owners pay extra money to get better services than what the city supplies.
The renewal process has been contentious. While supporters say the district is critical to revitalizing the city’s downtown post-pandemic, critics allege district-hired guards routinely harass downtown’s homeless population and the agreement funnels too much money into the pockets of the Portland Business Alliance, with which the district contracts to help manage the program.
These issues, Hardesty said, were overwhelmingly unaddressed in the new contract.
“What I see us trying to do is reinstitute the exact same model that was in place,” said Hardesty. “I’m hearing a massive community concern.”
Hardesty said she felt the agreement failed to address the fundamental question raised by a city audit last year. The audit found the city had taken a hands-off approach to managing its three enhanced service districts and that each district was operating almost as a city within a city.
“To ask us to sign another five-year contract that then we have to go back and renegotiate with the Portland Business Alliance seems like we’re putting the cart before the horse,” said Hardesty. “Just because it was a good idea 30 years ago, doesn’t mean it’s not worthy for us to ask some basic questions before we rush to implement a brand new one.”
The city has contracted with Downtown Portland Clean & Safe for nearly three decades. In return for additional services, all property owners in the district must pay a fee, which is collected by the city and passed over to the nonprofit. These fees can range from a few hundred dollars to over $200,000 depending on factors that include the size of a building and its assessed value.
Mayor Ted Wheeler stressed that the city was bucking the status quo with a new contract that promises more transparency about how the money is used and increased accountability around district-hired security guards.
Notable changes to the contract include a requirement for safety coordinators to wear name tags and hand out business cards; a more “easily accessible” complaint process for guards; and a new “community health outreach team.” The outreach team would only last until downtown has its own team from Portland Street Response, a new program that dispatches a non-police response to 911-calls.
The contract can also be modified down the road. The city has launched a two-year-long response to the city’s audit to examine whether Portland should continue to have enhanced services districts, and if so, what form they should take. Enhanced Services District Coordinator Shawn Campbell, who the city recently hired to spearhead the process, said any big changes the council decides to make during this process will be incorporated into the contract with Downtown Clean & Safe.
But disheartened opponents of Downtown Clean & Safe, who were the vast majority of the public testimony Thursday, brushed aside these changes as token reforms.
“It feels like a giant slap in the face,” said Kaitlyn Dey with Stop The Sweeps, a homeless advocacy group that prodded the city to launch its audit into enhanced services districts. “All we get out of it is a few listening sessions where we’re not even being listened to.”
In addition to disarming guards, some advocacy organizations had called on the city to straighten out the convoluted financial relationship between Downtown Clean & Safe and the Portland Business Alliance. As part of their contract with the district for administrative help, top alliance officials are paid at least partially with Clean & Safe money.
“We are paying people to advocate against us,” said Hardesty, noting the city government also pays into the district since it owns property downtown. “And that is never a good thing for a city council to do.”
Andrew Hoan, the president of the Portland Business Alliance and President & CEO of Downtown Clean & Safe, pushed back Thursday against claims that the arrangement was a disservice to the city. He said he viewed the structure as the most efficient way to serve downtown.
“Downtown Portland Clean & Safe and the alliance have a longstanding contractual relationship with shared employees, and financial systems that create significant efficiencies in support of their common mission,” he told the council.
The city is expected to vote on the contract next week.