Tomorrow afternoon, the Portland City Council will vote to approve Mayor Ted Wheeler's $5.5 billion proposed annual budget.
By now, you may have heard that the city's Parks Bureau is facing some of the biggest cuts—including the estimated elimination of around 55 full-time jobs and the reduction in permanent funding sources for a number of Portland community centers already struggling to keep their lights on. In total, the Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) budget has a $6.3 million deficit.
This massive budget hole is caused by PP&R's annual costs regularly outnumbering the amount of money coming in to the department from class costs, rental fees, and other revenue streams. This year, Wheeler has found the funds to keep a number of underfunded community centers and recreation facilities open for the short-term—but has acknowledged the city urgently needs a more permanent solution to PP&R's imbalanced finances.
At a May 1 press conference, Wheeler told reporters he'd be open to introducing a "parks district," an entity that has the power to raise and collect its own parks-specific taxes (Seattle voters approved this in 2014 ) or introduce a “parks bond,” similar to the successful housing bonds Portland and Metro have introduced in the past few years. He's also suggested that PP&R partner with community organizations for extra financial support.
"I would support taking a long hard look at a fundamentally different revenue stream,” he said at the time. However, Wheeler noted, that decision is largely up to PP&R's new director, Adena Long, and Parks Commissioner Nick Fish.
There's still no concrete solution to this long-simmering problem.
Sonia Schmanski, who serves as Fish's chief of staff, said fixing the structural problems within the Parks Bureau is her office's top priority.
"Following this budget process, we will be working with the Parks Board, the Parks Foundation, and our new Director to evaluate options for sustainable long-term funding, and will bring those options to Council for consideration," wrote Schmanski in an email. "This is an urgent and pressing problem."
Parks employees agree. Many have shown up at the city's budget hearings—some of them who already know their positions will be cut—upset that the city didn't address this problem earlier. Even more community members who rely on PP&R daycare programs, exercise classes, summer camps, and other social activities came to the hearings to ask commissioners to protect employees behind the beloved programs.
“This decision upstream is going to affect all of us downstream,” said Kelsey Owens, a Sellwood mother of two who spoke at a May 9 hearing.
A particular point of frustration: Many of the employees facing unemployment just fought the city to obtain reasonable living wages and benefits—and won.
"Those folks are going to be the first cut," said a representative with Laborers' Local 483, the union that represents PP&R employees, at a recent budget work session at City Hall.
"I think it's very realistic to say that we need to come up with a better plan," said Ryan Sotomayor, a PP&R employee who spoke at a budget hearing. Sotomayor said his job will be cut under the proposed budget.
"I really appreciate working for the city," he said. "I think there's a way forward to be fiscally responsible, and still retain the heart of the city... which is our parks department."
City Council will vote on the budget Wednesday afternoon at 2 pm.