PPS contractors deciding, yep, they should save this tent.
  • PPS contractors deciding, yep, they should save this tent.

For this week's paper, we took a closer look at what the "cleanup contractors" hired by the city to dismantle illegal campsites actually do. Since April, the city has paid security firm Pacific Patrol Services to chronicle the leavings of campers forced to move along, then stash items deemed personal property (as opposed to refuse) for 30 days so it can be claimed.

Mayor Charlie Hales' office, in announcing the deal to the Mercury, said it was an effort to better keep track of what cleanups are going on, and where. But it also enshrines a process mandated in a 2012 federal lawsuit settlement between the city and aggrieved campers. And the contract doesn't seem to apply to campsites police officers remove.

Anyway, campsite cleanups are a decent paying gig. Under a new amended contract, PPS employees earn between $25 and just over $30 an hour for their time—but they're guaranteed four hours of pay just for showing up. That's less generous than the last agreement the city signed, which had taxpayers shelling out $703 any time PPS showed up for a cleanup—even if it was cancelled or a false alarm.

As we reported, taxpayers paid more than $4,000 for the services from April through June 3. The city has agreed to pay more than $200,000, if need be, through June 2015.

On Tuesday, when I tagged along on a cleanup on a piece of Bureau of Environmental Services land, the PPS contractors said they couldn't talk to me about what they do. They'd been explicitly ordered by higher-ups not to do so. But it was clear they are a relatively minor piece of what turns out to be a fairly labor-intensive production.

Well before PPS arrived, a BES employee and four Portland police officers spent nearly an hour making their way through a warren of paths between the Springwater Corridor and Johnson Creek, letting three campers know they'd need to move on (one was arrested for violating an exclusion order). Only then were PPS employees clear to make their way through the property, classifying what was refuse and what should be stored and catalogued for potential pick-up. It would be a rough job if they were responsible for the whole affair, but they're not.

In fact, it's Multnomah County inmates being paid $1 a day who do the bulk of the cleanup at these campsites—they deal with piles of trash that are inevitably more bountiful than "personal property." Beyond the salaries of city staff who work these things, and the $25-30 hourly rate of PPS employees, the city pays $565 a day for those inmate work crews.

My experience Tuesday was far from atypical. For a better sense of how campsite cleanups are unfolding this summer, check out these inventory reports PPS is required to file with the city [pdf]. They only cover a fraction of the cleanups that have occurred to-date, but they're relatively similar. In one instance, PPS workers spent four hours at a site, collecting and saving dozens of personal property items. In another, they spent 5 and a half hours at a cleanup, but only collected a handful of items. In a third, they showed up at a site to find it wasn't a campsite at all.

It's interesting stuff, and it prompted the Mercury to ask the city if PPS was necessary at all, given its limited role and the sizable city resources already being used (Portland Parks and Recreation hasn't been using the contractor for cleanups). Abby Coppock, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Finance, says, yes, it is necessary. Here's her full response.

Each entity on site for a given cleanup plays a different role. PPS plays a coordinating role and they provide consistency in the larger process across bureaus. The inmate crews only pick up trash. PPS identifies, collects, stores and manages the personal property. They inventory, take pictures, and provide reports. PPS coordinates all parties involved at a site, including inmate crews, police, dumpster vendors, and hazardous waste removal. City employees are involved at different levels depending on the bureau. Some bureaus no longer have staff onsite and PPS coordinates the whole thing, others still provide some oversight. Police are contacted for most cleanups and provide safety if needed. Each cleanup is still unique in terms of the situation and who might be needed.