After a bonanza of funding requests from Portland's varied bureaus last month—some $32.3 million worth of asks, mostly for well-intentioned, vital, and noble programs—the city's budget office this week has come back with some extremely bitter medicine.
"In total," says a letter by budget director Andrew Scott, "we recommend $2.1 million in ongoing and one-time spending."
And Scott explains that austere stance with a red-letter warning. Despite what was looking like a healthy surplus—a little more than $9 million—it could be the city has no extra money to ladle out this spring, a year after closing a $21.5 million budget hole. Unexpectedly high inflation has dropped that to $6 million. And weak returns from business license tax collections, if the pattern continues through next month, could wipe out all the rest. We'll know by April 30.
"There is the possibility that there will not be any excess ongoing or one-time resources for FY2014-15," Scott's letter says.
Only five programs earned a nod from the budget office, which has spent weeks poring over requested budgets from the bureaus and developing reports meant to help Mayor Charlie Hales prepare his first pass at a budget and then help the council figure out how to politely tear Hales' draft apart.
Missing, you'll notice, are several high-profile and politically sensitive requests: $2.6 million to keep from laying off 26 firefighters in two years, $288,000 to restore night patrols for the police bureau's traffic unit, $170,000 to add a deputy chief of staff in the mayor's office, $2.9 million to fix up the city's westside disaster center, and $1.1 million to convert seasonal parks employees to permanent status.
That's not quite a snub. In many cases, the budget office said no after spending several paragraphs laying out why the request it was rejecting made for prudent policy. It's really a measure of how touchy the city's finances have become. And, in any case, commissioners will still probably find a way to pay for much of those requests. the proverbial push comes to the proverbial shove.
The budget office, it should be noted, has also made some general policy recommendations. One of those amounts to a vindication, of sorts, for Commissioner Steve Novick.
Novick, earlier this year, balked when asked to pay for nearly $500,000 in ongoing maintenance costs for the long-planned South Waterfront Greenway.
And when he did, it caused a bit of a stir. Despite policy requiring the city to pay for maintenance costs every time it approves building a new park, no one, in this case, had actually built that maintenance figure into the city's current financial forecast. Novick, in complaining about that blank check, was standing against that longtime political-fiscal understanding.
The budget office, it turns out, sees things his way.