An actual photo of Mayor Wheeler distributing the citys budget.
An actual photo of Mayor Wheeler distributing the city's budget. Getty Images / CSA-Archive

The creation and passage of Portland's annual budget is arguably the least sexy but most impactful bureaucratic process in city government. Deep within the pages of jargon-seeped financial proposals (usually in size 10 font), bureau leaders can quietly reshuffle millions of dollars toward new programs, defund entire departments, or propose new policies funded by non-existent revenue streams.

The budget is how, in 2018, Portland lost its free youth transit program and gained 49 new cops. It's how, in 2019, 56 Portland Parks and Recreation employees lost their jobs and several community centers shuttered, and how in 2020, Portland Police Bureau (PPB) lost its Gun Violent Reduction Team (at least, for a while) and pulled officers from public schools and transit patrols.

These controversial decisions baked into the city's annual financial plans are why elected officials often call the budget a "moral document," and use its development process as a way to fast-track their personal political goals.

So far, bureau officers have only released their requested budgets for fiscal year 2021-2022, which begins on July 1. Some of these requests are expectedly juicy: The PPB wants to fill empty positions that are on the chopping block and slim overtime costs, the City Auditor's Office wants to sunset the current police oversight office (potentially before its replacement is installed), the Portland Bureau of Transportation has proposed delaying the installation of hundreds of needed streetlights, and the Fire Department may lose a station and other support vehicles (cuts that could slow 911 response times). (It deserves mentioning that often, bureaus dramatically put their most popular programs on the cutting block to force council to restore the funds.)

It's now on Portland City Council to pick apart these proposals in city meetings, a process that will end with Mayor Ted Wheeler unveiling a final, comprehensive budget for the coming year—which will need his fellow commissioners' approval before becoming permanent.

But! The city's annual budget-making process isn't just a moment for politicians and bureau heads to play tug-of-war over hypothetical dollars, it's a chance for the public—the folks actually bankrolling the city—to help shape the city's priorities through public hearings.

Thanks to the pesky coronavirus, this will be the second year in a row that the city will hold all-virtual public listening sessions on the budget, during which Portlanders can express their support or opposition to proposed budget items before members of Portland City Council. These sessions will kick off next week, with the first being held on Monday, March 29 at 6 pm. Monday's hearing will focus specifically on budget decisions related to housing and homelessness.

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Annoyingly, you can't just hop on the call Monday night and expect to be heard: All members of the public must sign up to testify by Sunday, March 28 at 4 pm. Even so, only a few people will be randomly selected to actually speak before council. Portlanders who have no interest in public speaking but still want city commissioners to consider their perspective on the budget can do so by simply sending an email to BudgetComment@portlandoregon.gov.

City Council will hold two more issue-focused public listening sessions throughout April: One on Monday, April 12 at 6 pm, centered on economic stabilization, and another on Saturday, April 17 at 10 am on public safety. Portlanders will also be able to pipe up on Wednesday, May 5 at 6 pm to comment on Mayor Ted Wheeler's proposed budget (which will hopefully be informed by those previous public hearings).

As always, the Mercury will be watching these budget discussions and covering the decisions made. If you're like us and just want to follow along, you can tune into the virtual meetings on the city's YouTube page.