IN EARLY JULY, two security officers pulled up to a Northwest Portland intersection ringed by warehouses and scrubby lots.
The officers, employees of Portland security firm Pacific Patrol Services (PPS), were looking for makeshift shelters. As the city's "cleanup contractor," it's PPS' job to rid the city of any campsites that spring up on public property, and they'd been alerted to problems at this intersection a week earlier.
But the patrol, arriving at 12:35 pm, found no campers and no tents.
"We only found wet bedding and a shopping cart full of wet garbage," a security officer named Kamon Bryck wrote in his report about the cleanup. By 12:55 pm, after watching some Multnomah County inmates pick up the refuse, Bryck and his coworker were on their way.
The price for this service—for two security guards taking 20 minutes to watch prisoners clean up a shopping cart and blankets—was nearly $375, according to an invoice obtained in a public records request. Figure in the $565 daily fee the city pays for inmate work, and the whole 20-minute affair cost almost $940.
Almost three weeks later and several blocks away, PPS officers arrived at a campsite to find five individuals already cleaning up their things (under state law, the city has to warn campers at least one day in advance of an impending sweep). The homeless campers took their belongings, but left piles of garbage at the site, which the PPS officers once again watched inmates tidy up. The job lasted less than two hours, and yet still earned the security firm $473.88 from the city.
These aren't aberrations. When it comes to Portland's campsite cleanups, you don't need to look very far to find short work being awarded handsome pay.
Where in many cities municipal workers might handle such a task, Portland's been contracting out the job of cleaning up the homeless camps since April. It's an effort to adopt uniform policy for illegal camping across city bureaus, Mayor Charlie Hales' office has said, and to give campers a chance to claim property that's confiscated.
In the first six months, the city's been billed for more than $21,000—for 49 cleanups, related trash disposal, and "administrative" hours that vary wildly from job to job, according to documents obtained by the Mercury.
The amount spent is far less than the city's prepared to pay for the services—Portland's contract with PPS authorizes up to $204,162 for campsite cleanups through June 2015. It's also less than the city would have paid under the original agreement with PPS, which allowed the security firm to charge $703 a day, regardless of the work involved.
Still, a look at the reports and invoices filed with the city shows Portlanders are paying for many more hours of work than the city appears to be getting from PPS. Some of the records also raise questions about whether the city's being billed accurately for this work.
The Portland Office of Management and Finance (OMF), asked about these inconsistencies, defends them as legitimate, while acknowledging that some charges should have been more thoroughly defined in internal invoices.
Here's what city documents show.
From April to early October, campsite cleanups were clustered at the city's east and west margins. East Portland—specifically sites along the Springwater Corridor multi-use trail—led the way, netting 15 cleanup orders. Forest Park, Washington Park, and Hoyt Arboretum accounted for 10 cleanups. Each of the city's quadrants has seen at least some activity.
PPS' services have also been split between various city bureaus. The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) has tapped the contract most often, with 20 cleanup orders. The Portland Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) and Portland Parks and Recreation had each ordered 12 cleanups as of October 7. The Portland Water Bureau asked for five—all but one around the Washington Park reservoir.
The reports on these cleanups vary in their thoroughness, but it appears PPS workers have run across at least 87 campers at 102 sites.
More interesting, though, is comparing those cleanup reports with the invoices PPS files with the city. The documents don't always square, and some raise questions about inappropriate billing.
Take August 5, when PPS officers were out pursuing several campsites reported by the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). Shortly after 8:30 am, they arrived at the first, nestled along Interstate 5 as it rushes through the Rose Quarter. The site was tiny, and PPS spent 15 minutes collecting a coat, some shoes, and a purse before heading to the next cleanup area, documents show. For that work, the city was billed four hours for each officer—who make either $25.25 or $30.47 an hour, depending on seniority. The city was also billed for two hours of administrative work affiliated with the job. The total cost: $272.88.
Minutes later, the officers arrived at the day's second site, near N Interstate and Going. This was a bigger job, with four distinct campsites identified and three campers present, and took about an hour and 40 minutes to complete.
Again, the city was billed four hours for each officer, and two hours of administrative time for the job. That's 20 hours billed (a total of $545.76) for work that occurred between 8:30 and 10:30 am on the same day.
This double billing seems to be a violation of the city's contract with PPS, which dictates the security agency can charge for a minimum of four hours, and that "work performed beyond four hours a day would be billed for actual time worked." It includes no provision allowing PPS to bill separately for jobs that occurred on the same day.
In fact, PPS has abided by those terms in other instances. It lumped together three cleanups that occurred on July 31.
But OMF spokeswoman Jen Clodius says the double billing was legit, because the sites "were at two completely different locations, far from each other." The sites are roughly two miles apart, and records show it took officers 10 minutes to drive from one to the other.
There's also at least one incident where the hours claimed in PPS' invoices don't line up with its officers' reports. On September 2, security officers reported spending less than five hours cleaning up campsites on Portland Bureau of Environmental Services property along the Springwater Corridor near SE 111th. But PPS billed the city six hours for one officer, and eight for another.
Again, the city stands by that billing. Clodius explains "it was a complex camp, consisting of several sites connected by trails through wooded areas" and because there were actually three PPS officers involved, including one trainee.
"The times vary for the lead [officer] (at six hours) and the assistant (at eight hours) because there was actually a third individual (a trainee) on site with them," Clodius wrote in an email. That does not address the fact that a job reported as less than five hours was billed as six by the lead officer.
Even without the inconsistent invoices, it's clear citizens are paying for much more work than the city is receiving as part of the contract. A review of PPS reports indicates that more than 60 percent of the cleanups since July took less than four hours. But because the contract allows for a minimum of four hours charged, Portland's paid for at least 54 more hours than were actually worked.
To Robert Kravchuk, a professor of public finance at Indiana University, those figures indicated Portland could be doing a lot better.
Kravchuk, briefed on the situation by the Mercury, worried that bureaus might not have incentives to use PPS' services efficiently.
"That might account for the flagrant waste, " Kravchuk wrote in an e-mail. "At this point, the question might well be asked whether the city would be better off taking the work in-house."