Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

THE FUNDAMENTAL AXIOM that rules Portland's five-person city council is starkly simple (even if no one likes to come out and say it): If you want something done in this town, all you have to do is count to three. Three commissioners. Three votes. A majority. Shake hands and smile.

Commissioners usually like to dress up that naked calculus—devising some kind of compromise that brings the whole council on board, in a unanimous vote, letting everyone savor the plaudits. But it starts and ends with the rule of three.

That dance, in turn, has made the latest twist in this year's budget marathon potentially interesting. With some $1.1 million in life-saving housing and social services funding on the chopping block to help satisfy a $25 million deficit (cuts, including federal funds, could hit $2.3 million overall), a Street Roots-led campaign to fight off every last one of those cuts has clawed its way to that golden political number.

Commissioners Nick Fish, Amanda Fritz, and Steve Novick have all thrown in with the "We Are the Safety Net" campaign, submitting sunny photos of themselves holding signs that proclaim their support.

Fritz and Fish already backed last year's version of the campaign, which managed to not only save vulnerable programs but also win a promise of future funding. But adding a third voice—Novick, in his first few months on the council—sends an especially compelling message to Mayor Charlie Hales as he and his staff assemble their first draft of a budget plan that promises widespread pain.

It's not meant as a threat (the support arose organically, not strategically), and Hales' office swears it isn't taking it that way. All the same, it's an undeniable statement about priorities that the mayor is too smart not to ignore.

"It's a statement to the mayor that we have a commitment we want to keep," Novick tells me. "And it's a promise to him that we will work with him to develop a budget that preserves those services."

Money's tight for the city, make no mistake. But there are options. Novick, who once did a study of the city's housing bureau budget as a consultant, pointed to the city's police bureau budget. With crime down, he's musing aloud about whether the cops need an enforcement-heavy drugs and vice unit when money might be better spent on treatment.

"It's clear we have to be prepared to support cuts in the public safety bureaus," says Novick, "which Mayor [Sam] Adams went way out of his way to avoid."

Of course, Adams also found money for the safety net while protecting cops. That's probably not possible this year. Fish gives a nod to that history, even as he acknowledges the difficult path ahead.

"Here's my philosophy: You don't stop growing food during a famine," Fish says. "It's going to take not only a strong coalition, but a lot of creativity."

That's where the rest of us come in. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Raise your hands, too. While there's still time.

CLARIFICATION: This column has been updated to make clear that about half the cuts looming over safety net programs this year involve federal funding.