In a typical year, Portland City Council's fall budget monitoring process is a low-stakes opportunity for commissioners to make minor adjustments to the city's annual budget, which is approved in late June. But 2020 is no typical year.
Nearly 500 members of the public tuned in Wednesday to listen to this year's proposed fall budget tweaks during the afternoon City Council session. The six hour meeting—which included public testimony from nearly 180 Portlanders—centered on a contentious call to shave an additional $18 million off the current Portland Police Bureau (PPB) budget.
The proposal comes just four months after City Council voted unanimously to cut $15 million from PPB's requested annual budget, a decision informed by the city's racial justice protests against police brutality. At the time, commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Chloe Eudaly acknowledged that the reduction didn't go far enough, especially since racial justice groups were demanding at least $50 million in PPB cuts.
"We did not meet [protester's] demands in June," said Eudaly at the Wednesday meeting. "It's our job to listen and work with the community."
Both commissioners regard the fall budget process as a second act to June's initial police bureau cuts. The budget amendment introduced Wednesday, which would further reduce PPB's annual budget by $18 million, came directly from Hardesty's office, with the added support from Eudaly and her staff. The proposal suggests rerouting the police dollars into city programs that address the economic impacts of COVID-19 on the community and offer alternatives to police.
"Economic anxiety is a big predictor of violence," Hardesty said Wednesday. "If we combine our current economic recession with a global pandemic and a movement forcing us to confront centuries of racial injustice... we have unrest in real time. As government leaders, our role is to provide stability in those moments of crisis."
Specifically, the amendment allocates $7.5 million towards food assistance for food-insecure Portlanders, $7.5 million to cover legal defense for Portlanders facing eviction due to COVID-19's financial toll, $1 million to support the city's temporary outdoor shelter program for houseless Portlanders, $1 million for additional outdoor hand-washing and bathroom facilities, and other smaller allotments to increase computer access and general financial assistance for Portlanders during the pandemic. Another small fraction would fund crisis intervention training for Portland firefighters.
The amendment also suggests using some of the proposed PPB cuts to fund a recurring annual allocation of $2.5 million for the Portland Street Response, a program that hopes to replace armed police officers responding to low-level mental health or houseless-related 911 calls with a team of trained first responders and social workers. A pilot version of the Portland Street Response was expected to start in the spring, but has been delayed until early 2021 by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many members of the public who addressed council Wednesday expressed their explicit support for expanding the program's budget.
Finally, the proposal puts $1 million in recurring funds toward a program for Latinx youth and $14.5 million back into the city's general budget.
"We must act now to reduce harm to our community," said Eudaly," [and] invest in the root causes of human suffering, of inequity, and of despair in our community that we're currently sending the police to solve.”
But while Hardesty and Eudaly argued that the reshuffling of funds would address the root causes of crime and over-policing, their three council colleagues weren't convinced.
Despite Hardesty urging commissioners to make a vote on her amendment by the end of the evening, commissioners Dan Ryan, Amanda Fritz, and Mayor Ted Wheeler all asked for more time to consider the proposal. By 8 pm, the majority of commissioners agreed to delay the vote until next Thursday.
Wheeler, who serves as Portland's police commissioner, expressed concern that additional PPB cuts would impact 911 call response times, force layoffs, and generally hurt public safety. Fritz also asked the city's budget office to provide a more detailed analysis of how the proposed cuts would impact PPB.
"I was elected to spend taxpayers' money wisely, and I need more info on specifically what is being cut," said Fritz, who will retire from City Council in December.
An earlier draft of Hardesty's amendment included specifics on where exactly the proposed $18 million could be culled from PPB. The draft suggested reducing 42 full-time positions that are currently vacant due to recent officer retirements, and defunding two PPB divisions that respond to protests: the Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) and Rapid Response Team (RRT).
Yet, after hearing concerns about these specific cuts from commissioners before Wednesday, Hardesty's office said it decided to pull the specifics—allowing Wheeler and PPB Chief Chuck Lovell to make the final call.
Wheeler’s office confirmed that they were concerned by the proposed cuts, but only because staff did not believe that some of the line items would actually yield the purported savings.
Hardesty didn't hide her disappointment in her colleagues' indecision Wednesday.
“I am disappointed that we did not do our job tonight," said Hardesty, after learning other commissioners weren't prepared to vote Wednesday. "I see it as a very cowardly move to put this vote off until after the election... because that’s exactly what this is. I am a bit disgusted tonight with the lack of courage of this council.”
Ryan, who joined City Council in early September, compared Hardesty's request to US Senate Republicans rushing to fast-track Justice Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court confirmation a week before the presidential election.
"Why would I want to be part of a government that does that in Portland?" Ryan said. "I think it's sensible to respond, to reflect, and to not be reactionary at this time."
During public testimony, commenters identified Ryan as the clear swing vote on Hardesty’s amendment. Many said that they had voted for Ryan in the August special election because of his allegiance to racial justice and backing from Hardesty, and would be disappointed if he chose to keep the PPB budget as-is. At the same time, people who opposed Hardesty's amendment reminded Ryan of his campaign promise to keep police “at the table” for budget discussions, and warned him against being “bullied” by people critical of police.
The hearing ended with little clarity on where Ryan stood on the police budget.
The majority of public testimony Wednesday was in support of Hardesty’s amendment, with people citing the explicit violence they’ve witnessed at the hands of the police during recent protests and the critical need for funding to support those most impacted by the pandemic. Those speaking in favor included mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone and Loretta Smith, the City Council candidate who lost to Ryan in the August race.
But, at least 30 percent of comments centered on the need to maintain the current levels of policing to address a rising crime rate. Some pointed to the Council’s decision to defund the PPB’s Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT) in June budget cuts as the sole reason why violence has been rising in Portland, despite there being no clear correlation between the two.
What was made clear, however, was that Black Portlanders want to see a larger investment in city programs to support young Portlanders impacted by gun violence. At least ten individuals urged commissioners to consider putting more funding towards the city’s Office of Violence Prevention, which supports victims of gun violence and their families.
Others spoke in favor of smaller amendments made by other commissioners, including Wheeler’s ask for $70,000 to analyze how to replace the now-shuttered “sobering station” (which allowed intoxicated people a safe place to decompress without facing arrest), and Eudaly’s ask for $1.7 million towards the Oregon Worker Relief Fund. Fritz also introduced several amendments to restore Portland parks that have been damaged from the recent protest activity.
In closing, Eudaly acknowledged the division among commissioners on police funding.
“I know all my colleagues want to do the right thing, even though we don't agree in this moment. And I understand their fear of getting this wrong. We could get this wrong,” said Eudaly. “It's hard to imagine an alternative to a system, when it's all you have ever known. But that is what this moment demands of us.”
City Council will vote on all of the fall budget amendments at 2 pm Thursday, November 5.