LAST WEEK, I used this column to observe that the $11 million in extra cash the city thinks it'll have next year doesn't amount to much when you look at Portland's pressing needs—and Commissioner Amanda Fritz wasted no time calling the notion wrong-headed.
Portland isn't just filled with competing demands for its limited money, Fritz countered, it's in something of a budget crisis.
"We're in deep trouble," she told me Friday, when we had arranged to reconcile her take on the city's finances with my column. "We're looking at huge cuts in parks. We're looking at huge cuts in pretty much every city service."
You're justified in checking your calendar. December's a bit early for dire budget talk, particularly at a time when the city's seeing the fastest economic growth we've experienced in decades.
But Fritz has a reason for speaking out: She was the lone no vote last week when city council voted 4-1 to put a minimum $1.2 million into a flexible fund for affordable housing every year going forward.
The decision—aimed at mitigating the effects of Airbnb and similar services—is notable for a couple of reasons. First, as Fritz made a point of saying to her colleagues, council doesn't usually make such big ongoing spending commitments outside of its budget process.
Second, the city hasn't figured out where that $1.2 million in ongoing cash is going to come from. The $11 million extra expected next year is a one-time deal—and half of it's supposed to be spent on maintenance projects.
"We're now going into the budget with a $1.2 million deficit," Fritz told me. Earlier in the week, she'd called the move a "shell game." (Commissioner Steve Novick, who wound up voting in favor of spending the money, voiced many of the same concerns.)
It's understandable Fritz is the loudest voice against the move. Her parks bureau is hoping to bring dozens of low-wage employees under union protections. If it can't find millions to do so, the city may have to dramatically slash services in its community centers.
That's what happens when your city is faced with a housing crisis, though—you're faced with difficult choices.
Right now, those choices are leaning in the direction of more housing. City council, in recent weeks, has voted to kick a whopping $6.2 million more to the Portland Housing Bureau each year. It's also elected to give the bureau an extra $5 million in one-time money next year, while other bureaus are being asked to find five percent trims. Some of those moves were contrary to advice from the city's budget office. They've been cheered by housing advocates.
Ultimately, the question of whether these moves are a shell game or prudent triage will be tied to what Portland can do with the money. If the city misses targets for cheap housing as it has in the past, Fritz's comments may look prescient. If we see the progress officials are promising, they'll perhaps be forgotten.
In the meantime, you can expect Fritz will keep voicing her opinion on the matter. And that's a good thing.