AS POLITICAL SYMBOLS go, this one was small but meaningful. When Mayor Charlie Hales stood before Portland's assembled press corps on Tuesday, April 30, and finally unveiled his plan for solving Portland's $21.5 million deficit, he wasn't speaking from the elegance of city hall's Rose Room, the traditional venue for mayoral proclamations just down the hall from his office on the third floor.
Hales was speaking, instead, from the less stately Lovejoy Room, down on city hall's second floor—where the offices of his four city council colleagues are bunched. It was a collegial nod—not unremarked upon—to the fiscal sales job he must now see through these next few weeks if he hopes to win over both the public and the city council.
So far, that effort is off to an auspicious start.
"They're navigation documents," says Hales. "I've started taking it personally... I never thought that I'd do that. Every single line item is important. These are real people we'll be laying off. These are real services we won't be doing."
Bowing to the clearly stated intentions of a council majority—Steve Novick, Amanda Fritz, and Nick Fish—Hales delivered a major victory to safety net advocates by offering to fully preserve housing and social services programs. He also put a premium on programs run by the Office of Neighborhood Involvement and the parks bureau. He found some of that money by braving deep and controversial cuts to the city's police and fire bureaus.
No fire stations would close, but the bureau would lose dozens of positions as it restructures its staffing to cover medical calls with smaller teams who don't have to respond with fire trucks. The police bureau would see 55 fewer positions than what it asked for—including, for the first time in decades, sworn officers. After counting vacancies, the bureau could lose up to 20 cops—although Hales is proposing "one-time" money that would let the bureau shrink through retirements instead of laying off newly hired, and more diverse, police officers.
Former Mayor Sam Adams traditionally shielded public safety bureaus from the most painful cuts, asking other bureaus to cut more deeply instead. Hales wants to ditch the bureau's mounted patrol unit, cut some school resource cops, and pare back the bureau's property crimes unit, among others.
"Charlie Hales, with this budget proposal, has proved himself to be a more progressive mayor than Sam Adams," quipped Novick.
While other bureaus were asked to cut their spending by 10 percent or more, Hales proposed keeping nearly $1.1 million in cash for programs that include the city's Clark Center men's shelter and its winter shelters for women. He also coaxed $500,000 for short-term rent assistance from Multnomah County, replacing money the city would otherwise spend, so he could divert that cash to other programs.
A grassroots campaign led by Street Roots, called "We Are the Safety Net," had pushed hard for the programs. It won a similar victory last year. But unlike last year, when the campaign won the backing of just two commissioners, Fritz and Fish, support from a third, Novick, made it all the more difficult for the mayor to ignore—even in the face of a larger budget hole.
"That was not a tough sell with the mayor," says Novick.
Fish—who ran the Portland Housing Bureau until February, when Hales took over all city bureaus as part of a bid to cut down on budget season turf wars—also credited Hales with listening.
"Last year, we were fighting to the very last day" to save safety net funding, Fish says. "I'm delighted the mayor views the safety net as a core service."
But applause aside, Hales will have to continue sharpening his pitch.
• Labor is warily eyeing job cuts (some 182.5 are proposed) and complaining that Hales, citing the recession, isn't willing to pursue new taxes.
• Hales' office is proposing a $1 million "innovation fund" that would help bureaus experiment with "creative ideas" for saving money. But the rules, despite a promise to reward "competitive" pitches, have yet to be written.
• Hales wants to more than double the council's operating contingency, to $3 million from $1.4 million, and discourage his colleagues from dipping into it whenever they want to fund something the budget didn't contemplate. He'd prefer to use it to smooth past any bad news that might arise.
• In an attempt to keep the city's combined water and sewer rate increase under five percent, and also keep from raising building permit fees that fund the Bureau of Development Services, he's called for moving certain programs funded by fee revenue to the general fund.
That money would come at the expense of other programs Hales has decided not to fund—like shelter space for human trafficking victims. Fritz raised questions over that philosophical shift.
"Let's be strategic," says Fritz, who also was stung by the lack of early warning that one of her old bureaus, the Portland Office of Healthy Working Rivers, is up for elimination.
Fritz, in fact, had a modest list of concerns. She's questioning plans to stop paying for the East Portland Action Plan after this year and a call by Hales to pull $600,000 in funding from the county's Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center (CATC), which the cops claim they can't use and the county loudly argues they can ["Number Please?" News, Jan 23].
Hales, of course, needs three votes to see his budget through. Lobbying has already begun. Supporters of the mounted patrol already have a Facebook page up. And everyone's bracing for major heat from fans of Southeast's Buckman Pool, which dodges death every year.
He might also need some help from Multnomah County and is treading lightly. Taking money from the CATC—a suggestion that came from a report by Fish and Novick—clearly rankled Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen. Hales wants to cut some $1.2 million in city funding for programs he thinks the county would better fund. The county, he says, may not backfill all of that. The two met after Hales revealed his budget.
Cogen told the Mercury afterward that he "sympathizes" with Hales having to make cuts. But he strongly objected to cutting the CATC money. The city, he says, helped conceive of the center after the death of James Chasse Jr. in 2006 and signed a contract to pay for it. Losing the city's money would affect hundreds of people.
Cogen says he was "stunned" and "shocked," and is urging Hales to reconsider. Given what else Hales is attempting, he might have to listen.
"The notion that the police bureau is convincing people to disinvest in a facility that provides a safe place for people in a mental health crisis is unbelievable," Cogen says. "This is a bureau that's being sued by the federal government."