When Portlanders approved an historic 10-cent local gas tax May 17, the Portland Bureau of Transportation snatched victory in a long-fought battle for stepped up funding to fix and improve city roads.
One of the first items on the bureau's wish list? Thirteen new employees.
Tucked into a roster of last-minute budget tweaks [PDF] City Council will vote on tomorrow is a fairly eye-popping shift: $13.25 million for PBOT—money the bureau believes it'll reap from the gas tax next year. (The tax doesn't start until this fall, and the fiscal year extends July to June, so the city's pro-rated its estimate down from the $16 million per year officials have touted.)
Of that new money, PBOT says it will create 13 new positions within the bureau, costing $1.4 million each year of the four year tax.
The hires aren't completely out of the blue, but they also were largely lost in campaign-season debates that played out over the gas tax. Those discussions tended to center on whether it was proper to dedicate 44 percent of gas tax revenues to safety enhancements (as opposed to strictly spending the money on streets maintenance) or whether semi trucks would have to chip in.
There's no mention of the new employees that the tax would pay for in PBOT's FAQ on the recent ballot measure, nor on the bureau's landing page for the effort. This pie chart created by the "yes" campaign, doesn't explicitly call out the $5.2 million for staff hires over the course of the tax, focusing instead on how much money is going to certain types of projects (with money for staff built into those amounts).
But PBOT has brought up the hires in the past. Spokesman John Brady pointed the Mercury to an impact statement [PDF] sent to Portland City Council prior to the tax being referred to voters.
That document said the measure would "create approximately 7-8 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions for supporting maintenance work and approximately 3-4 FTE for project management." But it noted: "These estimates are medium confidence."
In fact, PBOT now says it needs to create one position more than the maximum 12 it communicated in the impact statement. Brady says the bureau has rejiggered its hiring priorities, replacing two "pavement staff" with engineering positions that will design paving projects, and adding a "contract administration position."
He says PBOT can't say for sure it won't hire more people with the tax money.
"Any decision to add future staff would be driven by the need to deliver the projects that are part of the Fixing our Streets program and to do so on time and within budget," Brady wrote in an email. "Also any decision to add staff would go through the City Council budget process and would also be put before the Citizen Oversight Committee."
Brady also took pains to point out that PBOT's late $13.25 million budget item came about just because of the very recent passage of the gas tax—not as an attempt to sneak something in at the last moment.
"Given the timing of the election and the budget process, it would be fairer to say that these are necessary changes submitted to meet the budget deadline," he wrote.
What's PBOT doing with the remainder of the new money? The bureau says $3.6 million will go toward materials, services, and construction costs, and $8.25 million will go into the PBOT contingency fund.
City Council is scheduled to formally approve the budget this afternoon.