In a 4-1 vote, the Portland City Council approved the mayor’s proposed 2019-20 budget Thursday.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty cast the sole vote against the budget, after two amendments she proposed to temporarily limit layoffs at the parks bureau failed.
The most significant changes affect Portland Parks and Recreation, which uncovered a $6.3 million annual shortfall in its $94 million operating budget. The city’s independent budget office has been warning of a potential shortfall at parks for the past several years.
Under the budget adopted by the council majority, the parks bureau will eliminate 50 positions and prepare to scale back its community center program over the next year.
As it became clear that Hardesty’s amendments would fail, expressions of pain and tears swept down the faces of a half-dozen parks employees who had come to watch the vote and said they were on the list for layoffs.
The budget includes $2.5 million in one-time funds to blunt the impact of the cuts this year and buy the parks bureau time to look for other operators for some of the community centers.
Commissioner Nick Fish took over management of Portland Parks and Recreation last August, just a few months before the bureau’s fiscal problems came to light.
Fish said the cuts were necessary to address the root cause of the $6.3 million funding gap.
“There were no easy fixes,” Fish said. “The more we looked at it, the more we realized that one-time funding was not the solution. It would only extend the problem for another year, allowing it to grow and to worsen.”
In addition to the operating budget shortfall, the parks bureau has a $28 million annual maintenance funding gap and many aging facilities, which contributed to the rationale for closing some community centers.
The popular Sellwood Community Center, which provides preschool programs, is scheduled to close in September. The Columbia Pool will remain open this summer, but will close July 2020. The city will reduce taxpayer funding for the Community Music Center and the Multnomah Arts Center.
The parks bureau is looking for private partners to lease and operate three of its other small community centers.
The mayor had relatively little new discretionary funding to work with: $2.4 million in ongoing revenue and $18.4 million in new one-time funding.
The city’s investment in homeless services, which has grown rapidly in recent years in response to the housing shortage, will remain steady at about $34 million, including about $2 million in federal grants.
Hardesty proposed three amendments to the budget that didn't pass.
One amendment would have frozen a planned cost-of-living increase for some non-union city workers. She also proposed eliminating funding for the police bureau's body camera pilot program, and eliminating the bureau's 28-person gun violence reduction team and moving those officers to patrol jobs.
Hardesty, who is the only person of color on the council, has used the budget process as a platform to discuss the gun team’s history of stopping African Americans at much higher rates than any other community in the city.
"There are not two sides to this,” Hardesty said, wondering aloud how outraged the council would be if police were stopping white people at disproportionately high rates. “There is justice; there is fairness.”
None of the amendments passed, though Commissioner Chloe Eudaly cast what she termed “a protest vote” in favor of the proposal to eliminate the gun violence reduction team.
Hardesty’s full-throated campaign against the parks cuts violated one of the unspoken rules of Portland’s unusual commission form of government: Commissioners generally defer to their colleague in charge of a bureau on questions of that bureau’s management.
Eudaly, Fritz and Wheeler all said they have faith in Fish and the new director of parks, Adena Long.
Fritz, who was the previous parks commissioner, noted that she had proposed closing some of the same community centers last year.
“I can’t support another one-time allocation to keep all the aging facilities open,” she said.
Eudaly called Hardesty’s proposals “a false choice” and “a short-term fix,” and noted that the general fund is under strain as the council's priorities shift toward homelessness and transportation.
“It’s frustrating to see cuts at a time of relative economic prosperity,” she said. “That is in no small part due to the federal government divesting in things like affordable housing and transportation and our need to fill in that gap.”
But after a tense hearing Wednesday that was marred by what was perceived as a patronizing comment from Wheeler to Eudaly and Hardesty (followed by three apologies), the mood before Thursday's budget vote was markedly collegial.
Hardesty acknowledged that her approach to the budget process was unorthodox, and said she intended no disrespect to her colleagues.
“I would not be true to myself and my value system if I didn’t do everything in my power to make sure we had a public conversation about whether or not we are investing based on my values,” she said.
Fish thanked the mayor for his leadership on the budget and praised Hardesty for her passion for the parks system.
“We agree on more than we disagree on,” he said. “My goal is to help every impacted employee find a home at the city. I will work tirelessly to make that happen.”
The parks workers facing layoffs will be offered vacant positions within the bureau and will be given the first opportunity to interview for other city positions they qualify for. Sixteen workers will be laid off July 1, and the city expects at least half will move into other positions. A second round of 36 workers will be laid off in September.
The city’s total 2019-20 budget is $5.6 billion, with roughly 6,000 full-time workers on the payroll. Of the total budget, $609 million, or 11%, is in the general fund, which pays for public safety, parks, homeless services and transportation. The rest is restricted for specific purposes or goes to servicing the city's debt.
While Hardesty’s proposals to eliminate programs at the police bureau did not gain traction, her advocacy on the issues led to a promise from the mayor.
Wheeler said he wants to create opportunities for his colleagues to review police bureau policy outside the budget process. He committed to holding council work sessions, open to the public, on controversial police issues like school resource officers and body-worn cameras.
Editor's Note: This story was updated to add context, and to clarify the content of Commissioner Hardesty's proposed amendments and the program effect of the Sellwood center closure.