Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

COMMISSIONER STEVE NOVICK was hardly musing idly this month when he emailed a blunt memo to his fellow city commissioners and four local news reporters demanding deeper budget cuts to the Portland Police Bureau—starting with the nearly $900,000 it spends on its mounted patrol unit.

"The mounted patrol is largely ornamental," he wrote. "The primary justification for the unit, as I understand it, is 'crowd control.' But marauding crowds have not seemed to be a major source of crime in Portland for quite some time."

Two days after his February 3 email was posted on Blogtown—the first place it appeared in full—Novick took his putsch against the horses to a definitive, attention-grabbing level during an otherwise low-key Portland City Council meeting on February 5.

What was supposed to be a feel-good hearing on the parks bureau's long-planned (and long-delayed) South Waterfront Greenway bike project turned testy after Novick balked at nearly $500,000 in unexpected annual operations and maintenance costs.

The commissioner had seized on an apparent lapse. Despite policy requiring the city to account for maintenance costs every time it approves a new park, no one, in this case, had actually built that maintenance figure into the city's current financial forecast.

And with only $5.9 million in new ongoing revenue available next year, Novick correctly pointed out that righting that wrong would further shrink what was available for other priorities—like permanently restoring firefighter jobs, or building sidewalks, or outfitting a Westside earthquake response center.

So he cut a tidy political deal.

In exchange for promising not to hold up the project, he got two of his colleagues to go on record with their willingness to "re-examine" the money spent on the mounted patrol. For those of you not so good at math and politics, that's a council majority.

Amanda Fritz, the commissioner in charge of the parks bureau, went along with the idea after admitting she wasn't willing to cut something else in the parks budget to make room for the Greenway project.

Fire Bureau Commissioner Dan Saltzman followed, after Novick asked whether he'd be willing to, say, lay off firefighters to bail out the Greenway project. (Nick Fish, presiding over the meeting while Mayor Charlie Hales was in South Africa, did not weigh in.)

Novick's rhetorical victory is a decided blow for the mounted patrol—which survived last year's budget bloodbath only after a well-heeled private group, Friends of the Mounted Patrol, promised a big enough check that Hales felt compelled to stay the ax.

The Friends group didn't waste time rallying their troops again. Citing our post, they urged members to call city hall the next day. And, proving the depth of their pockets, they bought commercial time on KGW during the Olympics.

But Novick's effort lands at the same time as some other bad news: Structural defects at the mounted patrol's barn on NW Naito, announced last week, mean the horses have to be driven back and forth every day from Aurora. That's another cost the city has to bear.

And that could be the breaking point that puts the unit out to pasture (pun intended)—sentimental TV ads or not.