[Full disclosure: As this article was going to publication, the author was applying for employment with the incoming mayor's administration. -- eds.]
On Monday morning, November 3, the heads of every city bureau, union leaders, city council staffers, and even folks from groups like Friends of Urban Renewal crammed into the Lovejoy Room at Portland City Hall. In case of an emergency, it's good to know the entire city could probably be run from a small conference room.
In a sense, this meeting was about an emergency: Given the economic mess across the country, the city is facing budget cuts next year.
While the city hasn't had to deal with a situation like that in years, cash-strapped Multnomah County is an expert at budget trimming. So the county's budget director, Karyne Kieta, stopped by to school city officials on how it's done there.
It has something to do with "not thinning the soup," one chief of staff explained later. Huh?
Kieta explains: When a government keeps making cuts by axing a position, or asking a program to operate with less money than last year, "you get to the point that the program becomes ineffective, you've thinned the soup so much... You can only ask people to do more with less so many years in a row.'"
Instead of trims everywhere, Multnomah County has programs submit "offers" explaining what they do with the money, and the results they get for the cost. Then—after setting the county's goals and the strategies they'll pursue to reach them—community members and the board rank the offers against county priorities. The final budget generally includes the highest ranked offers.
It's an approach Mayor-elect Sam Adams is reportedly considering for the city.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office plans to make the budget process just a wee bit more difficult for all the bureaus. With the noble goal of moving the city toward renewable energy sources, Saltzman is asking every bureau "to budget for this increase in electricity costs. This will enable the City to fully reach its goal of carbon neutral electricity use by 2012." The total cost across bureaus is just over a million dollars.
And speaking of that financial crisis that has everything topsy-turvy, Commissioner Nick Fish's office is working on foreclosure issues. According to his chief of staff, Sam Chase, they're looking at multiple ways the city can help homeowners, including a possible hotline that will put all foreclosure-related resources in one spot, or public service announcements. They're also looking at a pot of federal money that cities can use to purchase foreclosed properties—that won't help homeowners stay in their homes, but it could mean tenants would gain some stability. Or, the city might be able to figure out a way to make sure that foreclosed properties wind up in the hands of first-time homebuyers, instead of real estate investors making a buck off of the crisis.