Ryan Alexander-Tanner

THE VIEW offered up by Mayor Charlie Hales was bleak: a vastly understaffed police bureau; 200 people sleeping on the streets without toilets, dumpsters, or storage; hopes for new encampments—that might help hundreds more people find stability—dashed because of lack of funds.

This was last Wednesday, May 11, two days after Hales learned his proposal to hike taxes on Portland businesses was dead. The dire outlook, offered up in a lengthy press release, read like the mayor's attempt to muscle his fellow Portland City Council members into reconsidering the $8.7 million in new yearly revenue.

And, like the mayor's proposal for the tax hike—which some commissioners felt came out of the blue—it backfired.

When homeless advocates showed up to a lengthy budget hearing the following day, clamoring for council to keep nearly $700,000 for homeless camps in the budget, commissioners began looking around quizzically. After all, records show, the latest budget draft they'd seen—just the day before—included the money. There was no appetite to cut the funds, they insisted.

Yet Hales, who'd certainly seen that recent budget draft, continued to suggest there was a risk.

"Everything's at risk until it's approved," he said. "There's [now] a $9 million hole in this budget... we have to have a balanced budget. It's as simple as that."

It all set up the most acrimonious exchange at a council meeting in recent memory. Commissioner Nick Fish, who's been a regular critic of Hales' approach to homelessness, was furious.

"You know that's not true, mayor," Fish said. "Your office affirmatively gave misinformation to the public. These are vulnerable people in the community that you're playing politics with, and I think it's disgraceful." 

The back and forth lasted, with occasional interruption, for almost 10 minutes. A council gadfly took the opportunity to hurl obscenities at Hales, and wasn't even kicked out. Eventually the meeting continued.

It was another example of a booming budget turned slightly sour. The general fund the council is slated to approve May 18 is more than $500 million, $25 million of it surplus cash. Yet this is the most controversial budget of Hales' tenure.

It's also worth noting that at least one of Hales' predictions in that dire press release will come to pass. The nearly $9 million in cuts that commissioners made to Hales' budget have claimed $3 million in higher pay for police [In Other News, pg. 9], and a portion of the money Hales wanted to put toward body cameras on officers.

The cuts also kill cash for a permanent protected bike lane on Naito Parkway, which has rankled active transportation types, and millions for a new diversion program to help homeless people accused of minor crimes connect with services.

And yet? $500 million goes a long way—a point Commissioner Steve Novick sought to make in a May 16 hearing on potential cuts to the budget. That document, he noted, still includes around $29 million for housing and homelessness.

"The fact we're making these historic investments... is something people should know," Novick said. "It's something the media should highlight."

That's true. So I am.