Portland’s parks need to be saved.
The city’s stock of water fountains, restrooms, and community centers have deteriorated to the point that it would cost nearly half a billion dollars to fix it all. Trails, playground equipment and water fountains have been roped off due to a lack of funds for repairs. If nothing changes, Portland Parks & Recreation warns the same fate will befall one in five of the park’s assets within 15 years.
At a City Hall meeting Tuesday, Portland’s commissioners made it clear they have no intention of letting the city’s treasured park system fall apart on their watch. But how exactly they will right the ship of the deficit-plagued bureau remains to be seen.
Earlier this year, the bureau unearthed a $6.3 million shortfall in revenue. Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the bureau, said the problem was two-part: The department wasn’t getting its fair share of resources from the general fund and was overly reliant on fees, which the department wanted to keep low in order to keep its programs and classes accessible to the public.
A brutal budget session ensued, with the bureau cutting 50 jobs and scaling back a handful of community centers. A task force was sent to the drawing board to figure out how to make the city's cherished park system financially stable.
That task force returned Tuesday to outline three potential funding scenarios. The first option, presented as "a story of decline," showed what would happen if funding levels were kept the same.
It was quickly shut down.
“Can we just take scenario one off the table right away? It’s completely unacceptable to the majority of Portlanders,” said Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversaw the bureau before Fish. “I can’t imagine being the council that would preside over the demolition of Portland’s parks.”
The second option showed what it would take to maintain Portland’s park system, but not expand it. Estimates presented by the bureau show it would need to receive an additional $1 billion over the next 15 years.
And then there’s the third option, which would allow the bureau to steam ahead with its ambitious agenda to bring park amenities within reach to all Portlanders. Adena Long, the director of Portland Parks & Recreation, outlined the bureau’s goal Tuesday to create a natural area within a half mile of every Portlander, a full service community center within three miles, and a lush tree canopy covering as much as possible.
That plan isn’t cheap. To reach all of its service goals, the bureau estimates it’ll need an additional $2.5 billion within 15 years.
But commissioners appeared eager Tuesday to get the department where they want it to go.
“We’re going to go big or we’re going to go home,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler. "Let’s make a play for history – one we can be proud of for generations to come.”
“I agree with that, Mayor, that we need to think big,” echoed Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. “We need to find a big pot of money and get this done.”
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty was absent from the work session.
Fish said he saw the praise by those in attendance as a clear endorsement of scenario three.
“I think it was pretty clear that my colleagues – and virtually everyone in the audience – took scenario one off the table. Scenario two is simply just a status quo option, it’s just limping along,” he said. “Scenario three is reinvesting in the system that we want.”
The question then becomes how to pay for it. The task force laid out a menu of options for commissioners Tuesday including a general obligation bond, a special district, a local option levy, and new taxes on cellphone bills, temporary lodging, and food and beverage tax. Commissioners also appeared interested in the possibility of a local income tax.
Wheeler pushed back on the cell phone tax, which he said would likely be viciously lobbied against by telecom companies, while Fritz expressed interested in the proposed food and beverage tax.
“That is the only option put on the table that takes care of the deficit. It’s a huge amount of money coming in,” she said, noting the city’s admirable reputation among foodies.
But no consensus was reached. The ideas are so novel that Wheeler decided to take an informal vote with the audience to gauge a crowd-favorite (The food and beverage tax appeared to garner the greatest show of hands, the levy received the least, the rest got a handful).
The parks department will return to council sometime next year with fine-tuned recommendations.