• Illustration by Jess Smart Smiley
Portland City Council's oft-ignored policies on infrastructure spending and maintenance are about to be refreshed, and with great fanfare—another sign of the weird political times we're living in almost a year after Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick embarked on a troubled campaign to raise millions in new transportation revenue.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, backed by Hales, Novick, and Commissioner Nick Fish, has proposed a sweeping resolution (pdf) that would begin diverting millions in city funding toward infrastructure fixes as soon this summer. Fritz, taking a bold step on an issue of citywide significance that might normally be fronted by the mayor, is planning a hearing January 28. (And, no, it's not yet clear why Commissioner Dan Saltzman wasn't included...)

First, Fritz's plan would double the share of unspent city cash, after each budget year, that council's required to invest in maintenance—up to 50 percent from 25 percent. It also would, for the first time, bind how the council spends "one-time" funding available in a given budget year, also requiring 50 percent for maintenance.

Most consequentially, her plan would require her colleagues focus that newly freed-up money on just three areas: transportation, parks, and emergency management (the bureau that handles earthquake and disaster preparations). That emphasis would sunset after four years, in 2019, with the council free to determine if other needs have since become more pressing.

The whole thing would rescind a little-regarded 1988 resolution that compelled transportation staffers to continue seeking new revenue (a la the street fee) while also merely suggesting council allocate 28 percent of the city's utility license revenue on transportation. Fritz's resolution, notably, doesn't include a call to seek new sources of revenue.

“The Council must show discipline in assigning resources to the most urgent capital repair needs, particularly in being good stewards of the buildings, streets, and other infrastructure owned by the people of Portland,” Fritz says in a statement. “Fiscal responsibility, basic services, and stewardship of our infrastructure must continue to be primary drivers of all budget decisions."

The recommendations spill from a capital projects task force report (pdf) prepared in October by the city's budget office—plucking some of the low-hanging fruit from a list that includes some less palatable choices like requiring each bureau to start carving out a portion of its revenue for maintenance costs.


Fritz's announcement cites some of the dismal backlog numbers contained in that report: a $153.5 million gap for the Bureau of Transportation, based on paving needs as well as the cost of upkeep for assets like signals and bridges; and a $28.1 million gap for the Parks bureau, which saw voters approve a bond last year worth $68 million, but spread over 20 years.

Parks receives just $1.7 million from the city's discretionary general fund specifically for maintenance and construction, with PBOT bringing in just about $9 million overall from the general fund. The city's Bureau of Emergency Management, Fritz notes, receives no ongoing general fund support for maintenance and construction needs. Portland's looking at $14.4 million in onetime money during the budget year that starts July 1, meaning those bureaus would have at least $7.2 million to carve up among themselves.

That new money, of course, would still be just barely be enough to slow the city's bleeding. It also won't pay for major projects like the much-discussed dream of replacing the Portland Building. That's one reason, at least when it comes to transportation, why the city's capital report still endorses a push for new money.

That fight's on hold for now while lawmakers and the governor work up a transportation package in Salem that could see a hike in the statewide gas tax. Hales was planning to schedule an advisory vote on revenue options this May, but that effort ran aground in part because of conflicts with the Legislature's agenda but also because, sources say, it wasn't clear Hales had the support to move forward.

The council, under Hales, has taken advantage of an improving economy and spent a bit more on maintenance and debt-clearance than in previous years.

In the fall of 2013, he used one-time money to vanquish debt payments on city hall renovations ahead of schedule, freeing up some ongoing money a few years earlier than anticipated. Then, last fall, the council spent $4.2 million out of $10.1 million in surplus cash on maintenance and capital projects sought by PBOT, parks, and the city's bureau in charge of 911 dispatchers.

(Worth noting: the budget office's report also urged the council to follow Fritz's 50 percent edict on leftover cash last fall, instead of waiting. If the council had done so, it would have allocated an additional nearly $1 million to maintenance.)

Fritz, in her statement, addressed concerns that council might veer from this proposed policy the same as it did with the policy passed in 1988. She talked up her efforts to create an independent city budget office, a function that once sat solely within the grasp of the city's mayors—and which sometimes served as a tool for their personal political will.

Fritz explained that the independent City Budget Office she worked to establish in 2012 has more authority and responsibility to call out non-compliance with binding City Policy and brings a new level of transparency and accountability, being responsive to the entire Council. "I want to set a realistic policy, and then follow it,” she said.

Update 3:51 PM: Saltzman's chief of staff, Brendan Finn, reminded me that Saltzman has a policy of not joining unanimous co-sponsorships but otherwise wasn't able to comment on where his boss stands. It's well-known that Saltzman, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau, is planning a sizable request for affordable housing construction this year—after trying and failing twice to persuade more of his colleagues, before budget season, to back a plan tapping newfound revenue from short-term rentals.

We'll update with comments as we get them. Read the full statement here (pdf).