COMMISSIONER Steve Novick has thrown the first jabs in this year's brewing city budget fight—issuing a strongly worded memo to his colleagues, obtained by the Mercury, that calls for deep cuts to the traditionally untouchable Portland Police Bureau.
With city commissioners forced to haggle over nearly $6 million in new revenue for ongoing programs, and just $3.3 million for one-time projects, Novick's bold ask is a bid to scare up millions more for the three major bureaus he oversees: the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, and the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications.
He's proposed eating up more than half of that combined surplus, and with something of an apology.
"You will see that we are asking for what may seem like a lot of money," Novick wrote.
But with the council deciding last year to focus on emergency preparedness among other priorities, he says it's worth it.
Novick wants to furnish the city's still-unusable Westside emergency operations center, add more 911 dispatchers, and spend $1 million building pedestrian safety improvements in East Portland.
To help make up the difference, Novick suggests taking a red pen to the police bureau's $175 million budget. His wish list would include the end of the bureau's controversial mounted patrol, preserved last year at the 11th hour by Mayor Charlie Hales and community supporters.
"When the mounted patrol was restored in the last budget," Novick told the Mercury, "my joking comment was you need four horsemen for the apocalypse. But when the apocalypse comes in Portland, it will be in the form of a large earthquake. And the emergency operations center will be a lot more useful than the horsemen."
His list also would see command ranks thinned out (something Novick says would please the rank-and-file Portland Police Association), and the bureau's drugs and vice division severely reduced. Novick equates the unit's mission with "the failed national 40-year effort to interrupt the supply of drugs."
"I am asking that the city reprioritize a small fraction of its massive public safety budget to focus on what should be major public safety priorities," Novick wrote.
Novick's memo dropped just as the city's budget office began posting bureau spending requests to its website—the beginning of the city's months-long budget process. And even if Novick gets his wish to vote this spring on a budget with deep police cuts, his bureaus will have stiff competition.
A Mercury review of the requests that had been posted as of press time shows nearly $12 million in ongoing asks. And many fit neatly within the council's budget goals for the coming year. Despite Hales' general call for "stabilization" budgets, the city council approved three priorities for new spending: emergency preparedness, homelessness, and neighborhood livability.
The Portland Housing Bureau, saved from cuts in past budgets, has put in for $1.85 million in new ongoing funding. It's hoping to restore money for youth shelters, continue providing targeted services to homeless veterans, women, and minorities, and increase the city's infrastructure for helping the homeless deal with extreme cold.
The parks bureau is asking for more than twice that much in ongoing cash, $4.1 million, in part to slow what's been a growing maintenance backlog at the city's parks.
And the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement, which doesn't usually get a chance to stick its hand out for money, is making the most of the council's orders by asking for nearly $2 million.
The city's budget office said on Monday, February 3, that it would work on totaling every bureau's budget request. But that figure wasn't available by press time on Tuesday, February 4.
Conspicuously small, however, is the police bureau's budget request. And it's a sign that sentiments similar to the ones Novick shared in his memo have been quietly bubbling in city hall.
Back on January 9, the Oregonian—citing Chief Mike Reese and others involved in crafting the police bureau's budget—warned the council it could expect $5 million in new funding requests from the cops. It was an eye-popping report, filled with expensive proposals like a reopened Southeast Precinct, extra school resource officers, and plans to put cameras on every police cruiser.
And it opened eyes in city hall, among sources who wondered how the requests fit with priorities, like, say, earthquake safety and ending homelessness.
Instead, less than a month later, the bureau turned in a list worth just $471,000—more than half going to restore the traffic division's night team.
Those other big-ticket items were still mentioned, just without dollar amounts. What was left read like a list of frustrations: an increase in calls at schools, fewer detectives working than ever, and other operational grievances.
Asked if Hales, as police commissioner, had stepped in to whittle things down, his office confirmed he had.
"With the help of the mayor's office," says Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, "we took a very sharp pencil to that request and every request. That $5 million is not there."
Reese was out of town and unavailable for comment. But his spokesman, Sergeant Pete Simpson, called the apparent reversal part of "a healthy debate."
"The budget process is just that—a process," says Simpson. "The police bureau understands that there are a variety of thoughts and ideas on what to prioritize in public safety."
And what about Novick's suggestion that Hales consider even deeper cuts to the police bureau—presumably to help pay for sidewalks and earthquake preparedness—as the mayor assembles his first draft of a city budget this spring?
"The mayor and the commissioner talked about this," Haynes allowed. "It's part of the dance."