Hall Monitor 

Too Much of a Good Thing

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THIS YEAR'S BUDGET was supposed to be less savage for Portland City Hall.

Last year, faced with a $21.5 million deficit, city commissioners found themselves awkwardly cast as battlefield surgeons—threatening to hack off limbs and telling their patients (that's us!) to drink some whiskey and bite on some rope until the screaming was all over.

Compare that to now. For the first time in a few years, there's money to spend instead of cut. The December budget forecast showed close to $6 million in new ongoing revenues and a bit more than $3 million in one-time cash.

But with city hall's "hell week" upon us—that annual scramble of meetings and napkin arithmetic before bureaus turn in their budget requests on February 3—no one's sure that seemingly good news will leave city hall any less bloody. Requests for new funding could be double or triple what's actually available.

"After years of cuts," says one city source, "there's a lot of pent-up demand. Everybody's eyeing that money."

Mayor Charlie Hales has tried to head off those squabbles. In a budget memo submitted last year, he personally beseeched his colleagues and the bureaus they oversee not to go for broke.

Hales wanted what he called a "stabilization" budget. Then, as the size of the surplus made itself known, he and the council tried to agree on a framework for weighing so-called "add-ons." That short list was very specific: hunger and homelessness, neighborhoods, and emergency preparedness.

Every bureau got that memo. It's just not clear everyone read it.

City sources point most emphatically at the police bureau, which draws the most money traditionally from the city's operating fund. The bureau, overseen by Hales, has been floating a call for $5 million in restored funding.

True, that money would add back dozens of positions cut last year and even reopen the bureau's long-closed Southeast Precinct. But it also would eat up most of the surplus—without helping the homeless or making the city's buildings more resilient in the event of a major earthquake.

Hales, who has final say over the police bureau's budget, will have to reckon with that.

Because beyond the cops, pretty much every other bureau will have a hand out. And most will be making a better case for the money.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office says it's working up funding requests for the city's housing and fire bureaus—the latter under the rubric of "preparedness." The Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, in the business of disaster prevention and recovery, wants to talk about finally outfitting a Westside operations center.

Meanwhile, the city's utilities bureaus may push for shifting more of their programs onto the general fund in a bid to keep water, sewer, and stormwater rates down. (Those bureaus, sources say, also are being asked to contemplate multimillion-dollar cuts in operations).

In almost every way, this is still a better problem than having to figure out which programs should get cut the most. But it's still going to make for a list of victors. And potentially sore losers.

As Commissioner Steve Novick warns: "There will be blood."

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