A number of funding issues tucked into Mayor Ted Wheeler's proposed city budget have rubbed Portlanders the wrong way—whether it's hiring 58 new sworn officers or cutting bus passes for thousands of East Portland students.
Last night, a week before Portland City Council will vote on Wheeler's proposed budget, the mayor caved to the demands of a particularly agitated contingent of critics: Families and senior citizens at risk of losing their local community centers.
In Wheeler's updated budget proposal released last week, he slashed continual funding for two west side community centers, Fulton Park (off Southwest Barbur in the Burlingame neighborhood) and Hillside (just across West Burnside from the Portland Japanese Garden). By 2019, the budget proposed, those community centers would close their doors indefinitely.
Yesterday, community members who rely on those two centers for childcare, social activities, and more protested the planned cuts at Terry Schrunk Plaza. Before it was over, however, a representative from Wheeler's office walked across the street from City Hall to deliver good news: Wheeler had returned funding to Hillside and Fulton Park.
It was possibly the most successful—and most immediately successful—protest that Portland's seen in years. Which begs the question: Was this part of the plan all along?
The populations that make up the neighborhoods surrounding these two community centers are among the wealthiest and whitest in the city—making the optics of this protest considerably different than others that have occupied the same downtown blocks. And, it turns out, parents of adorable kids holding handmade signs asking for a community center aren't criticized nearly as harshly as parents of adorable kids holding handmade signs asking for police accountability.
The act of city hall conceding to this group of protesters strikes the perfect political balance. The city gets to make a show of how seriously it listens to protesters, while comfortably knowing few members of the public oppose the city acquiescing to the protesters' requests.
Before this protest, there was already a good chance these community centers would remain open. Placing beloved community centers on the budget chopping block—only to restore funding at the 11th hour—has almost become a yearly tradition at City Hall.
But it's unlikely Wheeler will bend to other community members' demands regarding the budget as easily, if at all.
Tomorrow, a number of organizations—including police watchdog groups, public education advocates, immigrants' rights activists, and those calling for higher taxes on the city's wealthy—will rally before city council's final budget hearing before their final budget vote on May 16. They're calling to restore funding for TriMet's YouthPass for Portland Public Schools students, for fewer sworn police officers (and more manning the understaffed 911 lines), and for more funding of mental health resources.
These asks are just as vital—if not more so—than the ones to restore funding to two relatively well-off community centers. But they come with significant opposition from both inside and outside city hall, and are a lot less photo-op friendly. We'll see how how quickly, if at all, Wheeler bends to these protesters.