UPDATE: (1:01 p.m. PT) — Portland City Council members have placed a five-year tax levy on the November 2020 ballot, leaving the question of parks funding in the hands of Portland-area voters this fall.
If passed, the proposed levy of $0.80 per $1,000 of assessed value would provide the city’s Parks & Recreation Bureau with approximately $48 million each year on average. That would
, or more than $130 per year.
The money would go to cover operating costs for an already struggling parks system. In 2019, the city had to make cuts after discovering a more than $6 million shortfall during the budget cycle. The coronavirus pandemic has only worsened the bureau’s financial situation, as fees from parks users have evaporated with programs being canceled.
Ahead of city councilors' approval Wednesday, Portland Parks director Adena Long said with levy funding, the bureau could restore recreation funding, plant more trees and create jobs, with a focus on equity work for East Portlanders and Portlanders of color.
It would also fund free recreational programs, including swimming lessons, after-school camps for low-income families and keeping the doors open at a slew of community and arts centers.
Long said the bureau could ultimately end its dependence on parks fees in 2021 with levy funding — but would also still have to rely on the city’s general fund to do so. She also said the levy would help fulfill a mission set out by the late Commissioner Nick Fish.
“Our parks and recreation system is essential to Portlanders’ health, wellness and connection to one another,” Long said.
“Commissioner Fish brought me here to help build a sustainable and equitable parks and recreation system for all Portlanders. We’re now at a decision point to invest in our parks and our people.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also acts as parks commissioner, said the levy would ultimately help the city achieve a more equitable and robust parks system.
“As things stand today, Portland Parks & Recreation has been hit especially hard [by COVID-19], and we know that recreation activities, special events and more have been canceled since March,” Wheeler said.
"The challenges caused by COVID-19 have made it clear that this levy is not only responsive to the bureau’s urgent financial needs, but will also improve services during a time when Portlanders have been relying on free lunches, outdoor spaces, and other Parks programs now more than ever.”
The levy garnered support from a handful of local leaders and organizations leading up to its approval but was staunchly opposed by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.
Hardesty denounced the parks bureau for invoking the late Commissioner Nick Fish’s name to promote the measure. She also said that organization behind the measure was haphazard.
“I want to be very clear: I am a strong supporter of parks, but I will not be bullied into supporting a half-baked plan that does not fully fund our parks operations and will still make you dependent on the general fund,” Hardesty said.
“I am absolutely appalled at the full-court pressure of running this to a ballot ... [you said] ‘we need money’. Well guess what? The entire city needs money. The fact that you need money is not a good reason for us to rush this to the ballot.”
Hardesty left Wednesday's session early to attend Gov. Kate Brown's task force on police training reform, and was unable to cast a 'nay' vote. The tax levy was approved 3-0 in favor.
Wheeler said that despite such concerns, the city’s parks were strapped for cash long before the pandemic.
“I’ve heard concerns from some that this is rushed, or that the timing isn’t right. [But] Parks has been facing budget challenges for at least the past decade,” Wheeler said.
“I recognize that there are other asks of taxpayers on the November ballot, and that we’re facing economic challenges on both an individual, as well as a global scale. I get it,” Wheeler said. “But let’s be clear: this would provide a huge return on investment.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Commissioner Hardesty left the meeting before voting.