The city's budget office delivered a blunt confirmation (pdf) of Mayor Sam Adams' "grim" warning back in October: To balance the city's budget over the next five fiscal years, the Portland City Council next spring will need to find $17.4 million in ongoing cuts.
Worse, starting next spring, for the 2013-14 fiscal year, a pool of one-time money that the city for years has used to fund ongoing social services and housing programs, among other things—the so-called "shadow budget"—will also need to vanish.
Noting that safety-net programs are "disproportionately" funded by one-time cash, Commissioner Nick Fish said the council will need to make "Hobbesian choices" pitting even deeper cuts to bedrock services like parks and streets and public safety against cash for housing inspectors, homeless shelters, mental health counselors, and more.
"We're coming to a point when that may not be sustainable," Fish said (also, I think he meant "Hobson's Choice.")
Finance planning manager Andrew Scott agreed: "That strategy is certainly at risk."
The figures are still preliminary and may improve, or get worse, before budget season really bears down next spring. Bureaus over the winter will use the data from the forecast to begin preparing lists of proposed cuts.
Budget officials say property tax growth has been vastly slower than expected, accounting for some $11 million of the cuts, and that they are also accounting for some, but not all, of the uncertainty affecting the global and national economies.
Still, it could be worse. The cuts amount to 4.7 percent of the current general fund—near the lower end of the 4 percent, 6, percent, and 8 percent scenarios the mayor had ordered bureaus to contemplate. If Multnomah County, however, succeeds in persuading voters to create a new library district, that could force an additional $5 million to $6 million in cuts, putting the percentage closer to six.
"When people actually see what an 8 percent cut looks like... I think they'll be surprised," Fish said. "It doesn't mean we'll accept these cuts, but it does mean you have to do the hard work."