Portland Parks & Recreation is considering two possible ways to fund the cash-strapped parks system: a bond measure and a special tax levy. 

Bureau director Adena Long told OPB’s “Think Out Loud” on Thursday that staff was working to determine the viability of a levy and bond as possible funding mechanisms for the bureau, which has seen its revenue dry up because of COVID-19. In the last few months, the bureau has been forced to forego the user fees that pay for city programs as it has been shutting down community centers, canceling summer camps and closing swimming pools.

“Currently, we’re doing our due diligence,” Long said. “We’re working with City Council and looking towards their direction and, of course, interested in to see what the public is interested in to find a best path forward.”

According to city officials, a capital bond could be used to address the nearly half-billion-dollar backlog of deferred maintenance. That includes assets like picnic tables, community centers, roofs and restrooms that need to be renovated, if not replaced entirely.

The tax levy, meanwhile, would create a much more flexible pot of dollars, which the bureau could potentially funnel toward personnel costs or future summer programming.

A mallard takes off after a bath on top of the closed Sellwood Pool in Portland, Ore., Friday, May 15, 2020. Portland Parks & Recreation closed pools and community centers for the summer to slow the spread of COVID-19.

A mallard takes off after a bath on top of the closed Sellwood Pool in Portland, Ore., Friday, May 15, 2020. Portland Parks & Recreation closed pools and community centers for the summer to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

The parks bureau announced this week that is has canceled all programming for the summer. This was, in part, a public health decision.

But Long said it was also a financial one. After temporarily closing community centers and pools earlier in the spring, the bureau didn’t have the money to operate summer programs. Closing was, she said, “a bit of a domino effect.”

Portland’s parks bureau funding issues began long before COVID-19. The bureau endured a painful budget session last year after discovering a more than $6 million shortfall. In response, the city cut jobs, scaled back community centers and formed a task force to figure out how to save the city’s park system.  

That task force returned to the Council in November. Assuming the Council decided to fully fund the city’s treasured park system, staff presented them with six options on how to get it done: a general obligation bond, a special district, a temporary levy, a cellphone tax, a temporary lodging tax, and a food and beverage tax. The Council wanted to add an income tax to the list of possibilities.

Since that meeting, all but two options have fallen out of favor. The cellphone tax and lodging tax were quickly dropped. The mayor had warned cellphone taxes would likely be lobbied against viciously and have historically proven unpopular in Oregon. An increase in the lodging tax was not expected to generate the needed money, even before COVID-19 cut travel.

Metro, the regional government, beat the city to an income tax with its May ballot measure, which proposes an income and business tax to fund homeless services. Creating a special district — an independent government structure — would be a slower, more complex track to take to generate urgently needed funding. The parks bureau noted in a statement it has not ruled that option out entirely.  

“This option is still on the table, but is more of a long-term option and PP&R cannot perform adequate due diligence on this option during COVID,” read the statement. 

And with the city’s restaurant industry dealt a brutal blow because of the pandemic, a food and beverage tax no longer made sense. According to the parks bureau, that option has been “indefinitely paused.”

This leaves the city leaning toward two basic, tried and true options for generating revenue: a levy and a bond.

These would need to be approved by voters, but it’s not clear when they would appear on the ballot. City officials emphasized they’re still in the early stages of discussing with stakeholders and details are in flux.