Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler released his first proposed budget Monday, and he’s got extra money to spend.
The City Budget Office has forecast a $18.4 million surplus for the 2017-2018 fiscal year.
Wheeler has proposed splitting a majority of that one-time funding between two of his priorities: transportation infrastructure and services for the homeless.
Neither move is surprising. By law, the city is required to set aside part of its one-time surplus for infrastructure investments. The $25 million in total the budget commits to homeless services matches funding from Multnomah County and is a small increase over last year.
Multnomah County, by contrast, has proposed increasing funding for homeless services by $7.5 million, up from $18.5 million it spent on the joint office this year.
The budget did not include any new sources of funding for affordable housing construction — a surprise given Wheeler’s focus on housing during his campaign and his choice to keep control of the Housing Bureau rather than assign it to a city commissioner.
Asked by reporters why the budget included no new money for affordable housing, Wheeler cited existing sources of funding including a recent $258 million bond measure passed by voters. He said he sees the city’s primary role in housing construction as speeding up the permitting process for private developers.
“The public sector is certainly not the primary developer of housing in our market,” he said. “If we really want to get to the backlog, the private sector must be able to do its thing.”
On transportation, Wheeler has proposed allocating $7.2 million in one-time funds to the Portland Bureau of Transportation for street and sidewalk repair and maintenance. The bulk of that funding, $5 million, would go to replacing 1,000 street corners to include wheelchair-accessible curb ramps.
The new transportation funding also includes $1.5 million for the bicycle and pedestrian safety program the city calls Vision Zero and $330,000 for snow and icy weather response.
On homelessness, in addition to $15 million in baseline annual funding, the mayor has proposed allocating just under $8 million in surplus dollars this year and $3.5 million in additional ongoing funding to Portland’s Joint Office of Homeless Services, which provides shelter beds and rent assistance payments.
The budget includes smaller investments in programs Wheeler says are designed to mitigate the livability challenges created by homelessness in the city.
“It’s the small things that collectively become big: the litter, the needles, the graffiti, the zombie homes, the RVs. These are the kinds of things we’re getting dozens and dozens of calls about all the time,” Wheeler said.
That includes $364,000 to turn four temporary positions into permanent positions for park rangers patrolling Portland’s Springwater Corridor and East Portland parks, which have attracted large groups of homeless campers. He’d spend roughly $1 million, funded by city bureaus that own property, to manage the city’s complaint-driven system for cleaning up homeless camps.
That funding is directed to the city’s Office of Management and Finance, which manages facilities and personnel for the city’s bureaus.
The new funding would allow the city to hire a person “to collect data and manage external public customer service relationships” around homeless camping, and to create a $500,000 reserve fund for “fast turnaround campsite clean-ups,” according to budget documents.
The budget also lays out the beginning of Wheeler’s long-term vision for the city – and his desire to focus on transportation infrastructure.
Building “Build Portland”
Earlier this year, Wheeler proposed a new fund, which he calls Build Portland, that the city would finance by borrowing $600 million over the next 20 years.
Wheeler says the city needs new money to reverse a dramatic maintenance backlog.
“We’ve actually got to go down to the substructure of our roads, and rebuild them, to the extent that we can afford to,” he said. “In addition we need crosswalks, we need sidewalks, we need separated bike lanes, and all these things cost money.”
The 2017-2018 budget includes $2 million in ongoing general fund dollars Wheeler has proposed using to raise $50 million in bonds to kick-start the fund.
In future years, he says, bonds could be raised and paid back using revenue that will come back onto the city’s tax rolls as the city’s urban renewal areas expire. Wheeler has proposed dedicating roughly 60 percent of returning tax increment financing dollars to the fund.
Questioned by reporters at the budget rollout Monday, Wheeler acknowledged future mayors and councils will have to pay back any bonds issued during his administration, but that he cannot pass legislation that would require them to make future contributions to the infrastructure fund.
Jell0, Not Cement
“I believe that this is such a withering priority for the residents in this city that it will be a very difficult vote for a future city council to take to roll back our investments in basic infrastructure,” he said. “I think that once we do this, it won’t be in cement, it will be in jello.”
Wheeler will likely also face questions from council members, who voted under Mayor Charlie Hales to shrink Portland’s use of urban renewal and may have competing visions for how to spend those returning tax increment financing dollars.
“Because we showed some discipline over the past four years, we’re going to get some money back from urban renewal districts quicker than was originally forecast,” said Commissioner Nick Fish.
Fish says he supports the idea of issuing a $50 million bond to address the growing backlog in street maintenance but says that the mayor’s long-term plan for spending the increased tax revenue from retiring urban renewal areas will have to balance other priorities.
“We also have huge other needs around affordable housing and parks, so the council will debate how much money is allocated to each of those important needs,” he said.
Identifying Possible Cuts
Finally, Wheeler signaled that future years’ budgets could include painful cuts, particularly if Portland’s booming economy shows signs of slowing down.
Between pay raises for police officers passed by the council last year and funding for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, the city has roughly $12.3 million dollars in new ongoing spending that hasn’t been offset by new sources of revenue or cuts.
Wheeler said he has asked bureaus to identify $15 million in possible cuts. And the budget includes cuts to three small but popular programs the mayor says aren’t central to the city’s mission.
Top on the list of possible cuts is the Police Bureau’s mounted horse patrol. Wheeler says it’s made up of eight horses stabled in Lake Oswego: They have to be transported to Portland for work. Just two officers are qualified to ride.
“We’re going to redeploy the sworn officers associated with the mounted patrol and we’re putting them back into the neighborhoods for our community policing program,” he said.
Cutting the mounted patrol will save the police bureau about a million dollars a year, but community supporters of the horses have raised money to save the mounted patrol in the past.
Wheeler has also flagged two programs that he plans to fund in the short term but wants to cut in future budgets. A preschool program run by Portland parks. And a program that provides free bus passes for Portland Public high school students.
Wheeler says funding for education needs to come from the state or the school districts.