“Save our parks! Save our parks! Save our parks!”
This chant serenaded Portlanders as they left the city’s last public hearing on the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
After years of patching the ballooning Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) budget with temporary funds, the City of Portland’s award-winning parks system is facing a whopping $6.3 million budget gap. It’s the incremental result of the bureau’s relatively static revenue stream not catching up with its quickly growing parks and community-center programs.
This gargantuan budget gap has only worsened Portlanders’ collective exhaustion over the annual fight to keep its 146 award-winning parks and 29 community and recreation centers open.
“Every year, these meetings pit people in our community against each other,” said Emily Golden-Fields, co-chair of Portland’s Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter, speaking during an April budget hearing. “Here we are again, dancing to the same tune. We are tired of having to beg.”
Often, Portland parks and community centers are put on the city’s annual chopping block, then saved at the last minute by leftover budget dollars. This year, however, promises more permanent cuts.
To rebalance this year’s off-kilter budget, PP&R leadership initially suggested shuttering up to six community centers and recreation facilities and slashing 56 full-time employees. Mayor Ted Wheeler softened the blow in his newly revised budget proposal, offering one-time funds to cover summer classes at three community centers on the chopping block (Hillside, Sellwood, and Montavilla), allowing the Columbia Pool and the Community Music Center to stay open for at least one more year, and granting Multnomah Arts Center enough funding to remain open for two more years. Wheeler’s budget, however, only saves one of those 56 jobs from annihilation.
Wheeler has asked PP&R Director Adena Long and Parks Commissioner Nick Fish to cobble together a long-term plan within the next year to fundamentally change the way the floundering bureau is funded. A few ideas that have been tossed around: Creating a formal “parks district” that has the power to raise and collect its own parks-specific taxes (Seattle voters approved this tactic in 2014), introduce a “parks bond” similar to the successful housing bonds Portland and Metro have advanced in the past few years, or leaning on private organizations to fill budget gaps.
That final option was coolly received by many members of the public during the latest—and final—budget hearing. “Hearing of soft privatization is frightening,” said a woman at the hearing who identified herself as Holly.
Kelsey Owens, a Sellwood mother of two, said she was disturbed that, instead of funding after-school programs that keep kids from joining gangs or other “unhealthy” groups, the city is keeping its dollars in policing programs that disproportionately targets people of color. Owens was alluding to the city’s Gang Enforcement Team (now called the Gun Violence Reduction Team) that was discovered to be pulling over more people of color than white people, on the simple assumption they were in a gang.
Owens’ critique is sourced directly from a proposal pitched by another member of city council, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. For the first time in recent history, a city commissioner has introduced an amendment to the mayor’s budget that suggests alternative ways of shuffling city dollars. By defunding the Gun Violence Reduction Team and relying on the salaries of unfilled Portland Police Bureau (PPB) positions, Hardesty has managed to save all PP&R jobs from extinction—and keep all parks and community centers open for a year.
“That funding will give us time to have a much more thorough conversation about how to fund our parks for the long term,” Hardesty told the Mercury.
In 2011, PP&R was recognized as the best-managed park system in the nation from the Academy for Park and Recreation Administration and the National Recreation and Parks Association. A recent study by a private research firm found that out of all major US cities, Portland ranks first among millennials for its parks and green spaces.
But without a dramatic overhaul to how the city funds park maintenance—as well as hiking classes, daycare programs, judo classes, and other beloved PP&R offerings—will Portland’s park standards slip?
“This decision upstream is going to affect all of us downstream,” said Owens at the May hearing. “I never thought in my wildest dreams you would take the heart out of our community. That is what our community center is.”