• Illustration by Jess Smart Smiley
Commissioner Dan Saltzman was plainspoken this morning when standing apart from his Portland City Council colleagues—all of whom had enthusiastically backed Commissioner Amanda Fritz's new plan to spend more of the city's excess cash on painfully deferred maintenance.

"We're setting ourselves up to be criticized," the veteran commissioner said not longer after it was his turn to vote.

Fritz's spending resolution, announced last week in the weird city hall gloom over news that the street fee was on hiatus, does a few things—most of which gave Saltzman some heartburn. Saltzman, in fact, was the only commissioner not to sign on as a co-sponsor.

It requires the council to spend half of any money left unspent at the end of a fiscal year on maintenance—and imposes the same threshold on whatever one-time funding is in the city's five-year forecast. (That threshold, applying only to surplus money, was previously just 25 percent.) It also requires, until this provision expires in four years, that the maintenance money be divided between transportation, parks, and emergency management.

Further, it repeals a long-ignored 1988 resolution and policy that demanded the city seek new ongoing transportation revenue while also suggesting it spend 28 percent of utility fees on transportation maintenance. That policy was all but forgotten by 1990, about when voter-approved property tax limits in Measure 5 shattered local government finances.

"I do find it ironic we're considering a resolution to repeal a city funding policy that was ignored," Saltzman said, "and that we're replacing it with a new binding policy that equally has the potential to be ignored."

Saltzman cited Measure 5 as well as a 2012 vote to create a library taxing district, which wound up "compressing" away $10 million in expected city revenue, because of property tax rules meant to cap the amount of taxes collected across various government entities

He said both "upset the apple cart" of the city's budget and wondered how the council would respond the next time something like that happened—perhaps forcing commissioners to grab some of that infrastructure money to patch a bleeding wound in the city's operating budget. He didn't want to, he said, "artificially restrain ourselves to priorities we might not be able to fulfill."

"I understand the popular appeal of this," he said. "I just don't think it's a wise policy."

Fritz and her colleagues, as well as the city's budget director, Andrew Scott, all disagreed. The council, in dividing last year's surplus, came close to spending half on maintenance.

"We need to start being very dedicated and disciplined in setting priorities," Fritz said, "and that's what this resolution begins to do."

And, at varying points, Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick, the architects of the street fee thus far, took turns being either quippy and/or lighthearted in announcing their support

"If this ordinance had a slogan," Hales says, "it would be 'get real.'"

Novick, who runs both the Bureau of Transportation and the Bureau of Emergency Management, reminded everyone that the resolution sets a "floor, not a ceiling," in that the council could freely spend the rest of its surplus money on maintenance, too. Then he used the room's loudspeakers to play a song: Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' "Let's Hang On (to What We've Got)."

There are, of course, some lingering questions.

As council gadfly Joe Walsh pointed out, the council will still have to battle among themselves over how the 50 percent will be spent between three priorities listed by Fritz. Walsh fretted that commissioners, who oversee individual bureaus directly, might not keep a citywide perspective when making those decisions.

Fritz, who oversees parks, noted one of the mayor's singular powers: the freedom to realign bureaus whenever the mayor sees fit. That power can be used to punish, reward, or just make the city work better.

"I'm certainly always aware the bureaus I have today might not be the ones I have tomorrow," she said. "And the bureaus I'm assigned tomorrow might be even more poorly funded than the bureaus I have today."

Another citizen made what Fritz conceded was a "fair criticism." The policy that the city's repealing, on utility license fee spending on transportation, would have meant $13 million more for transportation if it were followed this year. Fritz said the city didn't have $13 million it could divert without cutting from parks, firefighters, police, or other programs.

"Rather than having an aspirational policy we haven't met," Fritz said, "let's have something we can stick with that's reasonable."

(Of course, the city might have more money if the council in 2004, as I reminded everyone last week, hadn't followed Saltzman's lead in cutting the share of utility fees paid by the city's water and sewer bureaus. Absent that change, the city would have an additional $10 million in general fund revenue, the budget office told me.)

It's worth wondering whether Saltzman might have been more amenable if the policy change also included a focus on one of his bureaus: housing. Saltzman's made no secret he's going to ask for a substantial general fund investment in housing construction this spring.

Cash for housing was in Fritz's original plan, she said—until Hales nixed it when talking with her before it was announced. He reminded her that the city doesn't actually own the housing it helps build and subsidizes. (Saltzman's also been a fairly strident critic of Hales and Novick's street fee effort.)

"This resolution is focused on how do we take care of city-owned assets," Fritz said during the hearing, before suggesting she'd be interested in using the other half of the city's surplus cash to help.

"We certainly need to look at how were using the other 50 percent to help with the housing crisis."