Politics

Kotek’s recipe for Portland: More police and social workers, less plywood, trash and taxes

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
PORTLAND, Ore. Dec. 11, 2023 6 p.m. Updated: Dec. 12, 2023 1:54 a.m.

The recommendations emerged from a sprawling task force that Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek convened to address the city’s most challenging problems.

Gov. Tina Kotek in the coming months will press to increase police presence in downtown Portland, outlaw public drug consumption, take protective plywood off of buildings and step up social services for those struggling on the streets of Oregon’s largest city.

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As part of a push to rejuvenate a once-thriving downtown that has become a nationwide punching bag for its highly visible challenges, Kotek is also recommending offering tax relief to downtown businesses. She wants to pour millions into graffiti and trash cleanup on state-managed highways and hopes to declare a 90-day state of emergency to refocus officials at all levels of government on a festering fentanyl addiction crisis.

The recommendations are the most prominent takeaways to emerge from Kotek’s Portland Central City Task Force, a sprawling group made up of more than 40 businesspeople, politicians and others with a stake in downtown Portland. The task force, announced in August, set an aggressive four-month timeline for finding ways to make quick progress on the city’s largest challenges.

“We have a set of concrete recommendations, some the first of their kind, others that tap into Portland’s strengths in innovation, collaboration, art, and culture,” Kotek said in a statement. “The reward for a strong start is more work. I am committed to this effort and excited to see this work unfold.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said he is pleased with the final recommendations because they reflect his administration’s priorities. ”The recommendations from the task force are in perfect alignment with the work that we’re already doing,” Wheeler told OPB Monday morning.

FILE - Many stores are still boarded up in downtown Portland, Ore., as in this Oct. 6, 2023, file photo. Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek says she would like to see less plywood and graffiti covering windows downtown.

FILE - Many stores are still boarded up in downtown Portland, Ore., as in this Oct. 6, 2023, file photo. Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek says she would like to see less plywood and graffiti covering windows downtown.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

The governor’s office released a summary of the to-do list ahead of a presentation Kotek made Monday morning at the annual “leadership summit” of the Oregon Business Plan. Other speakers included those who chaired task force subcommittees on topics like public safety, homelessness, trash and taxes.

“When I look at this list from our Task Force committees, I see a set of refreshing, bold solutions that are smarter, stronger, and will be more effective than what any one person or governmental entity could achieve alone,” Dan McMillan, CEO of The Standard insurance company, said in a press release from Kotek’s office.

A rundown of the top recommendations to come out of the task force:

  • Declaring a 90-day fentanyl emergency. Kotek’s office says ideally the state, Multnomah County and city of Portland would all declare emergencies, helping them to share resources in a state-led “command center” set up to combat fentanyl sales, use and addiction. As part of this effort, Kotek’s task force is proposing concentrating outreach workers focused on mental health and addiction issues in the central city.
  • Making it a crime to use drugs in public. Talked up by city and state officials for months, this proposal is certain to be floated during February’s monthlong legislative session. Since Oregon voters decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs in 2020, law enforcement says it has little recourse to stop public drug use. Another recommendation calls for stepped-up addiction services for houseless residents if a public use ban is put into law.
  • More shelter space. Kotek says too many people have nowhere to go — day and night. She is pressing for more safe areas for people to spend their time. The release points to $3 million Multnomah County will spend on day services, and a recent pledge by city and county leaders to reduce unsheltered homelessness by 50% in two years. It also talks up county spending that in theory will help people transition from shelters to housing, as well as expand the number of beds available for the unhoused.
FILE - Police on bicycles patrol downtown Portland in this Oct. 6, 2023, file photo. One of the central city task force's recommendations for downtown is more police.

FILE - Police on bicycles patrol downtown Portland in this Oct. 6, 2023, file photo. One of the central city task force's recommendations for downtown is more police.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

  • More police. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler in August asked Kotek to send nearly 100 state troopers to downtown Portland, to assist a city police force that says it is stretched too thin. Kotek agreed to a small fraction of that number. Her task force is recommending continuing that partnership, adding downtown park rangers, and looking into adding more non-sworn employees who can respond to low-level incidents. Kotek also wants to ensure that the state’s police academy is training enough recruits. Wheeler told crowd members Monday that his bureau has seen recent success in staffing up, hiring 261 personnel in the last year.
  • Less trash and graffiti. The task force is recommending mapping out “trouble spots” for trash and graffiti and steering community volunteer groups toward them. Kotek says she’ll push lawmakers to spend $20 million to remove and prevent trash and graffiti on land the Oregon Department of Transportation controls in and around downtown Portland. That would be the second time the governor had petitioned for a budget bump for ODOT in recent weeks. Kotek already convinced the Legislature to support $19 million to ensure the agency can plow roads and do other routine maintenance. “This is our city folks,” Kotek told the crowd at the Oregon Business Plan event. “Let’s take it back. Let’s make it look like we want to look.”
  • Less plywood on windows. The governor’s recommendations call for downtown buildings to be free of the protective sheathing some have had in place since 2020′s racial justice protests. Kotek’s release said the plywood “sends the wrong signal to visitors.” She wants the plywood gone by next year’s Rose Festival, and calls out downtown’s federal courthouse and justice center — both persistent targets in 2020 — by name.
  • No new taxes. A persistent complaint of late from businesses and leaders like Wheeler is that Portland is one of the highest-taxed cities in the country — the release notes it trails only New York City — but that residents and businesses don’t feel like they are getting much in return. The recommendations call on elected officials to hold off on any new taxes or fees until the end of 2026 at least. It also calls for further study of the city’s tax structure, and potentially stepped-up tax credits for downtown businesses.
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It’s unclear how much traction Kotek’s recommendations will ultimately have, along with who will be held responsible for putting the ideas into place. The roadmap struck some online observers as obvious steps to combat Portland’s woes, and others as overly reactionary. But the plan received largely positive reaction from the hundreds of businesspeople and politicos in attendance at the Moda Center when the governor presented her conclusions -- particularly the call to criminalize public drug use.

At the task force’s first meeting, Wheeler submitted his own list of recommendations for the group to consider. Many of those suggestions, like freezing new taxes and expanding trash cleanup, are included in Kotek’s final package. With a grim city budget forecast for the coming year, he’s hopeful that Kotek will commit state dollars to see some of her recommendations through.

“If this is truly the beginning of a partnership with the state, then we need to know what that partnership looks like beyond encouragement,” Wheeler said. “In other words, show me the money.”

In other corners, reviews of the plan were mixed. Andrew Hoan, president and CEO of the Portland Metro Chamber and a taskforce member, said in a statement that the proposals are “laser focused on solving the serious challenges facing Portland, and when enacted will represent a genuine investment in our central city.”

Hoan added, “We now have a clear market signal that our downtown is open for business.”

But Kotek’s call to criminalize public drug use was panned by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.

“We all agree that state leaders must take swift action to address the drug addiction and homelessness crises across Oregon,” the organization said in a release. “However, criminalization is a false promise that will not solve these pressing societal issues; instead, criminalization will have unintended consequences, especially on Black and brown communities.”

The Health Justice Recovery Alliance, a coalition that helped push the 2020 ballot measure that decriminalized drugs, concurred. While applauding proposals to increase outreach and treatment services, the group said creating new criminal penalties “will not work and is the wrong direction.”

Kotek caught some Portland elected officials off guard in August, when, after making no secret of her disappointment with their leadership, she announced her own task force to take on the city’s challenges.

The governor set a fairly grueling timeline — just four months to complete the work and only three in-person meetings of the body’s 46-person central committee. Kotek and McMillan also created five subcommittees that held their own meetings and roped in more participants.

All meetings were held out of public view, a step Kotek argued was necessary to allow for candid discussion.

“We want to see more foot traffic,” Kotek told reporters in a briefing after the first task force meeting in August. “We want to see fewer overdoses.”

While the initial recommendations to surface from the task force are in line with many of the subjects Kotek, McMillan and subcommittee members have spoken about publicly, not all topics made the short list.

For instance, a “central city value proposition” subcommittee looked into increasing housing downtown and creating more vibrant events, its chair, Nolan Lienhart, told OPB in November. Those suggestions weren’t mentioned in Kotek’s release, though they are likely to emerge. Lienhart was scheduled to present on Monday morning.

OPB reporter Alex Zielinski contributed to this story

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