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Q&A: Hales Releases 'Difficult' Portland Budget

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has produced a budget to deal with a deficit in excess of twenty-million dollars.

Budget officials say it’s one of the city’s largest shortfalls in living memory.

If Hales’ budget is adopted, it would mean well over 100 full-time positions eliminated, and some restructuring for Portland’s core services. April Baer joins me now with details.

Beth Hyams: April, why is the city in so much fiscal trouble?

April Baer: As low as revenues fell during the Great Recession,  Portland had some work-arounds that helped avoid layoffs in areas like its police and fire bureaus: The federal government sent economic stimulus money, Former Mayor Sam Adams did some creative work with one-time funding to keep operating budgets more or less on track.

Mayor Charlie Hales says those days are over.

Charlie Hales: “I literally wake up early in the morning or in the middle of the night thinking about the budget. And I never thought I’d do that. Every single line item is important. These are real people we’re going to be laying off. These are real services.”

April Baer: The city’s facing a $21.5 million shortfall for fiscal years 2013 and 2014.

Beth Hyams: So how many jobs will be eliminated?

April Baer: It’s a moving target. The Mayor’s office gave us the figure 182 Full-time equivalents. But some of those are positions that are currently open. Some are anticipated retirements. Some are positions the Bureaus asked for in their budget plans, but may not get. And some of those jobs may survive as City Council negotiates on the Mayor’s plan. But just to give you a sense, the fire bureau would lose about 42 jobs. I heard from the firefighters’ union the fire bureau has only 1 full-time position open right now. So presumably, there would be dozens of layoffs.

Beth Hyams: Which bureaus are absorbing the most cuts?

April Baer: I’m still weeding through the documents, but obviously police and fire would get hit. The Portland Development Commission and the city Planning Bureau would absorb substantial cuts. The Office of Healthy Working Rivers would be dissolved. And, folks may have heard, two high-profile line-items, the Police mounted patrol  - that’s the horses - and the Buckman community swimming pool would be eliminated, if the budget is adopted wholesale.

Beth Hyams: What’s the reaction on the budget?

April Baer: Hales got some points from fellow commissioners for involving them in budget research and taking some of their suggestions. Commissioner Nick Fish was pleased to see some areas preserved like youth programs in the parks’ service, the SUN after-school curriculum, the East Portland action plan, and a lot of housing-related safety net services.

Nick Fish: “When he said he was going to prioritize basic services, I think the question was, ‘How does he define basic services?’ And in this budget, he has said services that low income families depend on are important to him in this budget.”

April Baer: So Fish says the Bud Clark Center, a relatively new shelter, will stay open, short-term rental assistance will remain intact. The proposal would zero out the city’s portion of funding for a needle exchange, and some shelter beds for sex trafficking victims.

Commissioner Steve Novick has made a study of the fire and police budgets. He’s advocated for smaller crews at some fire stations, and other cost-saving measures.

Steve Novick: “One thing I think people should be aware of is that major crime is down 18% since 2005. The idea that we can have a safe city with a somewhat right-sized police force is, I think, a reasonable hope.”

April Baer: But the city’s also getting plenty of blowback. A lot of programs would be slashed under this plan.

Case in point: the city’s been co-funding a Crisis Assessment Center. It’s a 16-bed facility intended to offer police a place to bring people who are having a mental health crisis. Hales says police aren’t taking people there. He’s proposed zeroing out the city’s funding.

But Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen says more then 1200 people have used the facility since 2011 - many brought by other law enforcement. If officers aren’t using it, Cogen says it’s not because of the services.

Now, the caveat to all this is that three community budget forums lie ahead, public comments will be taken, and Council will talk through all these proposed cuts many times before taking a vote on a final version in June.

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