Looking Behind the Curtain 

Inside Mayor Sam Adams' Magically Not Terrible City Budget Plan

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ON THE DAY before he released the last city budget of his lone term in office, Mayor Sam Adams, in a moment of candor in the Portland City Council chambers, confessed that days of late, long negotiations had left him feeling crabby.

That may have been an understatement.

Adams—already fighting to keep promises not to gut the city's police and fire bureaus while also, somehow, keeping park crappers open and social-services programs healthy—had thrust himself head-deep into another insane budget challenge: Finding even more city money to bail out Portland's struggling school systems.

Privately, city hall insiders were bracing for a bloodbath. And while rumblings of an end-run around the mayor remain very much alive, by the time Adams was unveiling his last-gasp 2012-2013 plan on Thursday, May 3, some of those same insiders were shaking their heads in awe.

Adams—working political magic like no other mayor in recent history—managed to hand out a raft of prizes to his fellow commissioners while still cutting $14.7 million from the city's overall operating budget.

His proposed plan, which becomes official on May 15, portions out $7.5 million for Portland's school districts; avoids cop and firefighter layoffs; keeps park toilets open for business; and only slightly cuts back on cash for housing programs.

"This is no time to be cutting back on those services," Adams, flanked by city and school officials, said in a news conference.

Adams cannily seized on some good news: unanticipated business license tax revenue. And he also cut from sources that otherwise fly under the radar. Adams targeted management in city bureaus; took millions from the city's Office of Management and Finance, which oversees things like the city's insurance programs, printing services, and fleet of vehicles; and he lined out merit raises and cost-of-living pay bumps.

Adams turned to that approach, in part, to avoid even deeper cuts to core services like road maintenance and public safety. It won support from city unions, and it also spares Adams, for now, the pain of catastrophic budget headlines as he turns to nurturing his legacy.

"At this point we expect no layoffs in [the bureau of] transportation, which is a huge victory," says Richard Beetle, business manager for Laborers' Local 483. "As of last November, the bureau was predicting layoffs on the order of 60 to 100. Prioritizing frontline services while trimming overhead costs is a huge step in the right direction."

But it's also an untested gamble, and even those who follow the city budget aren't sure how some of those behind-the-curtain cuts would work in real life.

"Those cuts will impact city services, but not devastate them," says one observer. "But you can't just gut management and not impact front-line services at some level."

Some of the cuts in Adams' plan, however, will unquestionably affect Portlanders. The Buckman Pool and Fulton Park Community Center would both be closed. The city will stop helping homebuyers. And the city would also have $606,000 less to spend on mowing and trimming greenery, and fixing up facilities, in city parks.

It's still an open question whether Adams' colleagues will fall into line, as publicly supportive as they all are. The schools gift—which Adams cooked up without any of their approval—is particularly controversial. Commissioners might eyeball that money, but it puts them in the politically difficult position of conspiring against teachers and schoolkids.

Commissioner Randy Leonard told the Mercury on Tuesday, May 8, that another commissioner, whom he declined to identify, had approached him and asked if he'd form the third vote in a bloc opposed to the mayor. He says he declined—and promptly told Adams' office.

"That was my response," he says. "You need to take any concerns you have directly to Sam."

Some changes are expected, particularly in the parks and transportation budgets. But another insider said it's too early to talk about voting blocs.

A citywide hearing is set for May 17, and the mayor will present his final budget around May 23, meaning Adams still has almost two weeks to huddle with commissioners and listen to voters before rejecting anyone's suggestions. The budget is set to be approved on May 30.

Political shenanigans could depend on whether those suggestions go after Adams' cherished projects: public safety, economic development, arts, and schools.

"That's where," says one source, "the mayor has put markers down." And that's where a fight might be had.

—The Mercury's Nathan Gilles contributed reporting to this story.

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