I'm not sure whether you would call my day "fun."
I spent much of it splitting time between the Portland City Council's budget retreat in City Hall and the Portland Police Association contract negotiations in the Portland Building. It was, at the least, educational.
In the budget meeting, we learned that Portland has $9.7 million in leftover revenue from the 2009-2010 fiscal year, and that previous forecasts for the general fund—source of much of the city's spending—are holding up amid a still-dour economy. One likely beneficiary of that extra cash: The police and fire bureaus, which would be allowed to hire new workers to offset an expected wave of retirements this summer.
In the union talks, we learned that the city wants to move forward as quickly as possible on negotiations, because—ding-ding-ding!—labor costs from a contract that officials wanted negotiated months ago linger as one of the great question marks on the city's ledger for the next two years.
Union and city negotiators tried to chip away at some of the less controversial items today, as in nothing sticky like discipline, oversight, or compensation. But after more than five hours of talks, there was agreement only on some housekeeping measures.
One seemingly innocuous change sought by the union, like changing "bureau" to "city" in the contract, was anything but. The city's team had to say no, so far, because of how that might affect plans to arm police-like workers in other bureaus (Hi, Randy Leonard!)
What else did we learn today? Keep reading.
This year, the city wants neighbors to participate in decisions on spending priorities more deeply than they have in years past. That plan, pushed hard by Mayor Sam Adams, also was more controversial than anticipated.
Bureaus were asked only this week to turn over information to budget planners charged with crafting a survey—a labor-intensive request that annoyed commissioners Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish, who run two large bureaus, Environmental Services and Parks and Recreation, respectively.
The bureaus are being asked to determine what portion of their budgets is "flexible," or within their discretion, an answer that's due by Monday to keep postage costs down for the survey. Adams said his many bureaus would be ready by then, but, then, it was his idea.
"We're team players, but we would always encourage more lead time," Fish said.
Commissioners also worried that data showing where some bureaus spend money in the city might be misleading, especially if those maps don't separate out one-time capital expenditures from cash spent on operations. Whether downtown and wealthier neighborhoods receive more money than parts of East and North Portland remains, um, a sensitive topic at City Hall. Leonard noted that the water bureau, for example, might spend a lot in one neighborhood, say on the East Side's big pipe, but that the project benefits the whole city.
Everyone was relieved to learn that there will be more money to spend than expected. The city's economist, Josh Harwood, said conservative budget decisions in past years were partly responsible for the good news. Another factor? Property taxes are stable, and business license revenues, so far, have exceeded expectations.
Financial planners produced a plan on how to divvy that cash, something the council will consider in the coming weeks:
$750,000 will boost the city's savings account; $1.5 million will be used to help the police and fire bureaus hire workers; $1.1 million will revert to the transportation bureau; $2.4 million will fund infrastructure projects; and $3.9 million will be applied to the budget starting July 1, 2011.
But with stimulus drying up, state cuts looming, pension costs continuing to rise, and federal mayhem possible if the Republican Party takes over Congress, no one is feeling too relieved, either.
Said Adams: "There has never been a budget cycle with as much uncertainty as the one we're about to go into."