IT STARTED SMALL, way back in 2006. After Portland officials agreed to pay a little more than $1 million a year to a controversial security company known, then, as Wackenhut, uniformed private security guards took up visible posts at the entrances to city hall and the Portland Building.
And—to the consternation of some—discreetly armed guards also began stalking the corridors of city government. The move was led by council members like then-Mayor Tom Potter, who worried their workplace wasn't safe enough.
Over the years, however, that initial million-dollar contract with Florida-based Wackenhut, since renamed G4S, has grown and grown.
Private guards now preside, among other places, at city parks, the city's water treatment plant, and at Union Station. As of last year, they also now guard the mayor, replacing a police detail that had traditionally taken on the role.
And on Wednesday, March 30, in what's likely to be a routine discussion by Portland City Council, the scope of G4S' work is expected to grow again.
Under a new amendment to the city's contract, an armed guard will be deployed to the hearing room where Portlanders argue against code violations and parks exclusions, and other guards will be stationed, for the first time, at the Bureau of Emergency Communications and at more of the garages and parking lots where the city's vehicles are stored and maintained.
At a time of austerity, the ongoing annual cost of the contract, even after G4S agreed to find cost savings, would swell to $1.5 million—bringing Portland's total costs since embarking on the deal to nearly $9 million. The G4S deal is in addition to the city's contract with the Portland Business Alliance for extra patrols downtown.
"Every time the contract is renewed, we assess business needs," says Bob Kieta, the city's facilities services manager. "The city has used private security services for over 20 years, and we balance the openness of our buildings and the safety of those who use them."
Kieta says the growth in the G4S contract hasn't been part of any master plan: Services are added to the contract only after a bureau or office requests the guards for their buildings or lots. Typically, he says, "vandalism and theft are often the two issues that begin the discussion" at places that aren't office buildings.
Officials in the city's hearings room, inside a building at 1900 SW 4th shared by the city and Portland State University (PSU), did not return a message asking whether any recent incidents prompted their request for an armed guard. The city auditor's office, which oversees the hearings room, referred questions to Kieta.
Abby Coppock, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Finance, says PSU is sharing some of the costs associated with patrolling the SW 4th building. She also stressed that the contract's actual expense over the next year could be lower than the city's estimate.
G4S has had, at times, something of a controversial reputation. Not long after it won its current contract, it bid against the Portland Business Alliance for the downtown patrol contract and lost. At the time, it was battling with the Service Employees International Union over its safety practices and worker treatment. Their dispute has since been resolved.
Ben Blair, G4S's local manager, was tight-lipped when it came to questions about the expansion. He wouldn't say how many or how often armed guards patrol city property. And while he did acknowledge some complaints about his company's guards over the years, he characterized them as few and minor.
Kieta, when asked whether the city tracks complaints, also said, "There have been no significant complaints or issues."
And the money is expected to keep flowing.
Says Blair, "It's business as usual."