Two months ago, Portland economic analysts were predicting record revenue highs for the city's upcoming 2020-2021 fiscal year. With the city's business licensing tax raking in more funds than expected—and Mayor Ted Wheeler suggesting zero budget cuts to city bureaus—city commissioners were prepared for a relatively painless budget process.
That was before the coronavirus arrived in Oregon.
Now, with record economic loss across nearly every industry, the city has a new financial outlook on the upcoming fiscal year, which begins in July 2020.
"It's the most uncertainty I’ve ever experienced," said Josh Harwood, Portland's city economist, in a Tuesday morning virtual meeting with city commissioners. "I never thought I would long for [it to be] November 2008 again, but that’s the reality. That’s where we are. We’re doing the best we can."
In February, the city had predicted Portland would make about $602 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year. In a Tuesday meeting with city commissioners, Harwood said that estimate has now shrunk by 13 percent—or, by $75 million.
"And $75 million is conservative," he added.
There are more questions than answers about how COVID-19 will impact the city's finances, Hardwood said. But he's certain of three funding mechanisms that will be dramatically lessened due to the pandemic.
The first is Portland's business license tax, which collects a percentage of revenue from any business making profits in Portland. With COVID-19 threatening to permanently close some Portland businesses and keeping prospective businesses from opening their doors, the city expects a $45 million decrease in business license dollars.
Another revenue source impacted: Portland's transient lodging tax, a surcharge placed on hotels and short term rentals, like Airbnb listings, located in Portland. Because of a predicted drop in tourism following COVID-19's spread, the city is predicting a $20 million decrease in the lodging tax revenue.
Finally, Hardwood said, it's expected that many financially-strapped homeowners across Portland will default on property taxes this year. Because the federal government has delayed the national tax filing deadline to June 15, the city's unable to calculate how much it may lose in lost property tax dollars.
It's likely more losses will come into focus before Wheeler releases his proposed budget in early May.
"This is a little more art than science at this point," Harwood told commissioners. "We’re trying to navigate the best we can."
City Budget Director Jessica Kinard said her office is identifying areas where the city can reduce costs to make up for the $75 million gap. She pointed to the city's current savings meant for "known liabilities," and suggested the city make "as many reductions as possible" in its coming budget.
"The good news is that we're coming out of an expansionary period," said Kinard.
The city is also hoping to backfill some of the predicted losses with the $114 million it received last week through the federal government's Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. That is, when the government tells them how the funding can be used. As of Tuesday morning, the US Treasury Department had yet to give the city clear direction on what the CARES dollars could legally be used on.
"I don’t want to be too hard on the federal government," said Wheeler, during the morning meeting. "It is unfortunate that we now have 114 million dollars sitting before us, but we don’t actually know how we can use it because the rules have not been published. Until we get the framework from the federal government, it’s really hard for us to define how we would spend those dollars."
The city does know it can't spend CARES dollars on lost revenue or expenses that were already accounted for in the current city budget. That means it can't cover salaries for furloughed employees. Last week, the city announced that all of its employees not represented by a union—around 1,700 people—would be required to take 10 days of unpaid leave by October. More cuts are expected.
Wheeler had chosen to forgo his salary for the rest of the year to save costs. In an afternoon press conference, Wheeler said he'd like to prioritize spending the CARES funding on small business relief and household financial support.
The CARES Act is also supporting other local agencies with emergency funds. Multnomah County had collected $28 million, TriMet has received $175 million, and Portland International Airport is counting on $72 million.
Despite the number of economic unknowns, the city is still on track to finalize its 2020-2021 budget by the end of June. The city plans on holding public hearings, presumably online, to discuss Wheeler's proposed budget after its estimated May 6 release date.
In her closing remarks during the morning meeting, Kinard said her office remains "as flexible as possible" in solving Portland's economic crisis tied to COVID-19.
"This is not territory that any of us envisioned we would be in right now," she said.