Parks Cuts And A Water Taxi: What You Should Know About Portland's Proposed Budget

By Amelia Templeton (OPB)
Portland, Ore. May 1, 2019 11:44 p.m.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler released his proposed 2019-20 budget Wednesday. The city economist is projecting the Portland's general fund will have $577.3 million, up slightly over last year's revenue. Much of that will be eaten up by the city's ongoing program and personnel expenses, leaving the mayor with just $2.4 million in ongoing general fund dollars to divvy up for new programs, and $18.4 million in new one-time funds for the 2019-2020 budget.

Here are the top line items getting funded and what’s getting cut next year:


1. The mayor’s budget includes anticipated deep cuts to Portland Parks and Recreation. Wheeler said he has a new funding model for the parks in mind.

Portland Budget Debate Looms As Hardesty Challenges Mayor's Spending Plan Personnel costs at Portland Parks and Recreation have been rising for the past several years. The cost of salaries, health benefits, labor agreements and public employee pensions (PERS) has increased significantly.

At the same time, the bureau has been reluctant to increase fees for its community centers and classes, which might risk driving away users. For the past several years, the bureau has stayed afloat with hiring freezes and other measures, even as the gap between its revenue and costs widened.

That's led to a $6.3 million deficit in a roughly $94 million operating budget for Portland Parks and Recreation.

To balance its budget, Portland Parks and Recreation has proposed closing or shifting management of a number of community centers and pools and laying off 56 full time employees next year. The facilities slated for closure include the Columbia Pool and the Sellwood Community Center. Parks will try to rent out the Laurelhurst Dance Studio, Hillside Community Center and Fulton Community Center to partners that will maintain community programming there. It will also reduce hours and programs at a number of other community centers citywide.

The mayor’s budget provides $2.5 million in one-time funds to help Portland Parks and Recreation wind down programs and manage the cuts. That funding will allow the Columbia Pool to remain open for another year, and will ensure that 2019 summer classes remain funded, so families that have already registered won’t have to change their plans.

Wheeler said it will be hard to free up general fund dollars to invest in the parks system, given how much the city now spends annually on homeless services and public safety.

Mayor Ted Wheeler listens to testimony on April 4, 2019.

Mayor Ted Wheeler listens to testimony on April 4, 2019.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

In the long term, the mayor wants to look for a new way to fund parks.

“Parks are probably the most beloved thing about this city,” Wheeler said. “I think we have to at least take the hard look at questions of a park district and other models that might allow us to maintain the parks assets that we have for future generations.”

That's a model that Seattle recently adopted to protect its parks funding.

There’s a silver lining in an otherwise grim parks budget. Wheeler has proposed more than $600,000 in ongoing funding to maintain parks built this year, avoiding a scenario where new parks, many in less wealthy East Portland, would be at an immediate disadvantage and might not have the grass cut or the lights kept on.

2. A proposal to help the homeless championed by the newspaper and homeless aid organization Street Roots and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is getting funded. 

Wheeler has proposed setting aside $500,000 in reserve and to establish a workgroup to improve coordination between the city’s first responders and to develop a Rapid Street Response program.

Earlier this year, Street Roots laid out a blueprint for a team of mobile responders who could assist to homeless people and people with mental illness, conducting outreach and welfare checks as an alternative to dispatching police officers. 

Hardesty, who oversees three emergency response bureaus, has been a key advocate of the Rapid Street Response and has been meeting with stakeholders to discuss it.

Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty listens to testimony over a proposed ordinance on April 4, 2019.

Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty listens to testimony over a proposed ordinance on April 4, 2019.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

But the mayor’s budget note directs the city’s chief administrative officer, Tom Rinehart, to lead the effort to develop the Street Response program and to present recommendations to Council no later than Nov. 15, 2019. Rinehart has long been one of Wheeler’s key strategists.


“I’m grateful for the mayor’s leadership in funding the Portland Street Response program,” Hardesty said. “This program is a compassionate response to a crisis our city cannot afford to ignore, and I look forward to working with his office as well as our county and community partners to develop a plan we can implement in the near future."

Wheeler said he does not intend for the program to become a part of the police bureau. He hasn’t settled on which bureau he believes should lead the effort, but it will likely be under Hardesty’s purview in the future.

“Her active partnership and leadership in this is going to be critical to its success,” Wheeler said.

Separately, the budget includes $182,727 for the Bureau of Emergency Communications, which Hardesty oversees. That money would be used to hire consultants to do scoping and feasibility of a nurse triage program and the Portland Street Response proposal.

Hardesty’s staff is seeking to embed nurses in the 911 call center who can respond to low-severity medical 911 calls as part of a broader overhaul of the center’s protocols for triaging calls.

Nurses would be able to conduct a patient assessment and schedule appointments, which Hardesty’s staff said could reduce the need to dispatch ambulances and fire trucks to minor medical calls and could potentially reduce emergency room visits.

3. The city’s funding for homeless services will remain flat this year, and funding levels could fall in the future.

The mayor’s budget allocates $32.1 million to the Joint Office of Homeless Services, while Multnomah County is contributing $26.5 million. Those dollars fund the city’s system of emergency shelters, rent assistance and rapid rehousing programs.

But a considerable amount of the city’s funding for the homeless services office — $6.9 million — is one-time funding, meaning it might not be available again next year.

“We committed to at least backstopping the services at the current service level. That was the best we could do, given the resources we have available,” Wheeler said. “We are heavily exposed to an economic decline.”

Wheeler said he didn’t think proposing a new local tax to shore up funding for homeless services made sense, given the potential $2 billion tax hike the state legislature is considering to fund schools. “That should be everybody’s priority,” he said.

The budget includes several new investments in homeless services that are small but significant.

The mayor is setting aside $323,000 in ongoing dollars from the city’s Recreational Cannabis Fund to provide drug and alcohol addiction treatment services connected to affordable housing.

In the past, Multnomah County has funded addiction treatment programs, as the branch of local government that handles social services and health.

Snow blankets the site of the future Harbor of Hope homeless center in Northwest Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

Snow blankets the site of the future Harbor of Hope homeless center in Northwest Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

Amelia Templeton / OPB

But the City Council is increasingly discussing permanent supportive housing as a strategy to solve chronic homelessness — and it has committed to provide at least 300 units of permanent supportive housing as part of the $258 million bond voters passed in 2018.

The budget also includes $250,000 in ongoing funding for a new shelter in southeast Portland and for the Navigation Center developed by Homer Williams and Tim Boyle at the edge of the Pearl District. That shelter will be referral only, and focused on serving chronically homeless adults.

A pilot program that will provide three mobile bathrooms and three mobile showers deployed across the city will also be funded, for one year, with $877,870, with much of the funding dedicated to hiring station attendants.

4. There’s a water taxi in it.

The budget funds a smattering of other projects, ranging from the dull but essential — a $9.4 million chunk to help replace the city’s obsolete tax collection system — to the just plain essential — roughly $7 million for critical infrastructure like traffic signals, wheelchair ramps, and a failing tunnel — to the downright curious.

Susan Bladholm is the founder and president of the nonprofit Friends of Frog Ferry. The organization is proposing a passenger ferry service to run along the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

Susan Bladholm is the founder and president of the nonprofit Friends of Frog Ferry. The organization is proposing a passenger ferry service to run along the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

Molly Solomon / OPB

The Frog Ferry Passenger Water Taxi, a proposed aquatic taxi line that would run from Vancouver to Lake Oswego, is slated to get $200,000 to help fund a feasibility study.

The ferry is the brainchild of Susan Bladholm, a co-founder of Cycle Oregon, and is partnering with a smattering of local public agencies, from the Port of Vancouver to Travel Portland.