To make time for an abundance of public testimony, Portland City Council delayed its Wednesday vote on the city’s 2019-2020 budget until Thursday afternoon.
Nearly 60 Portlanders signed up to share passionate testimony on Mayor Ted Wheeler’s proposed budget this afternoon—many of them critical of programs the city’s poised to cut or continue funding. Yet the most combative moments of the three-hour meeting came from the other side of the dais.
Mayor Ted Wheeler began the council meeting by introducing his proposed budget and inviting city commissioners to propose any last-minute changes. As expected, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty introduced an amendment that suggested slashing the police bureau’s Gang Violence Reduction Team (GVRT) budget and rerouting its 28 officers to cover street patrol positions.
Hardesty’s defended this decision with a 2018 city audit that found the GVRT (which was then called the Gang Enforcement Team) was disproportionately targeting African Americans. Portland Police Bureau (PPB) has not provided any information on how its improved the GVRT following this audit. An update to that audit published earlier this week, however, shows little action taken by PPB to follow the audit’s recommendations.
“What the police bureau has shown is that they have no interest in being held accountable by the people they are sworn to protect and serve,” said Hardesty.
Commissioner Eudaly seconded Hardesty’s amendment, raising concerns with the lack of data proving progress within the PPB and how small PPB’s traffic division is in comparison (Eudaly is currently the commissioner overseeing the Portland Bureau of Transportation).
Both Eudaly and Hardesty stumbled over the GVRT’s name, referring to it by the Gang Enforcement Team—the name it’s carried up until October 2018.
“I fault myself that my colleagues don’t know more about the program—that’s on me,” responded Wheeler, who has defended the GVRT as a critical public safety tool. “I find it hard to understand how my colleagues could understand a program when they don’t even know the name of a program.”
”Oh, wow,” Eudaly remarked, shaking her head.
After he finished speaking, Hardesty turned to face Wheeler. “I want to sanction you on being disrespectful to Commissioner Eudaly and myself,” she said.
The reason she believes GVRT changed its name in the first place, she said was because, “they do not want to be held accountable” for the blistering 2018 audit.
Wheeler then invited PPB Chief Danielle Outlaw to speak before City Council on the GVRT’s success.
“I have listened while we cast aspersion on the employees on this city and not give them an opportunity to defend themselves,” said Wheeler.
Eudaly didn’t let that jab pass unnoticed.
“I respect the hard work of our officers, I recognize it is stressful, it is dangerous,” she said. “I refuse to allow this narrative from the [police] union, [police] bureau, or the mayor that I can’t have differing opinions without disparaging Portland officers. That's not what this is about. This is about the allocation of our funds based on data, not fear."
“That’s fair,” Wheeler responded.
He gave a longer apology before introducing public testimony.
"I'm not proud of my behavior earlier,” Wheeler said. “I don't even recognize myself sometimes. This is an emotional discussion. I let my emotion on this issue get the better of me. Commissioner Eudaly you deserve better than this, I apologize. I'm disappointed and I'm embarrassed."
After taking an hour and a half hashing out the budget, city commissioners realized they didn’t leave enough time for the 56 people who had signed up to testify. Commissioner Nick Fish had to leave early for an appointment, meaning that if everyone spoke, he wouldn’t be around for the final vote.
Another lengthy discussion on how to accommodate the public’s input ended with city commissioners deciding to continue hearing public testimony and bump the budget vote to Thursday afternoon.
The majority of pubic testimony centered on what’s become the most contentious piece of this year’s proposed budget: expected cuts to community centers run by Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R). While Mayor Wheeler has found funding to extend a few community centers' lifespan for three more months to a year, PP&R has yet to propose a plan to close the bureau's growing budget gap moving forward.
Along with closing several community centers by the end of the summer, Wheeler’s budget suggests cutting at least 56 full-time PP&R jobs.
“I don’t see how Parks and Recreation can come back to what it is now if you make these cuts,” said Troy Broat, an instructor at PP&R’s Mt. Scott Community Center, who is slated to lose his job under the new budget. “The services that I help provide are vital to the working families in this community who can’t afford to live here. It’s mind-boggling to me that this is even on the board right now and I’m really upset about it.”
Several people testified against the pending closure of Sellwood and Hillside community centers, including a mother who said the elimination of Sellwood’s affordable preschool program might keep her from returning to college next year.
“What’s the plan?” she asked city commissioners.
Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees PP&R said his office was in process of “doing a scan of different options in the community.”
Fish also introduced a plan to save some of the PP&R jobs by reshuffling the people laid off into other vacant positions within the bureau that are more vital. For now, Fish said the city’s human resources department has found positions for at least half of the people who are facing the first 22 round of jobs cuts in June. There will be another round of layoffs in September. Fish is also looking into allowing those employees to move into vacant positions in other bureaus.
“We take very seriously the… potential for layoffs and losing valued employees,” he said.
The proposed budget introduces several new programs, including $500,000 to fund a homeless response program drafted by Street Roots, $183,000 for a new program that connect nurses to people who call 911 low-level physical and behavioral health issues, $878,000 for three mobile bathrooms and three mobile showers to serve homeless communities, $150,000 for mediation services for disputing tenants and landlord, and $200,000 to fund a water taxi called Frog Ferry.
City Council is scheduled to vote on the budget at 3:30 pm Thursday.