Portland City Council heard feedback from more than a hundred members of the public Wednesday afternoon and evening on how the city should be spending an unexpected budget surplus of $62 million.
The council meeting, which ran just under seven hours, attracted a variety of community feedback and resulted in some uncertainty from city commissioners on whether the proposed $44 million budget package appropriately addressed city needs. The budget proposal is part of the city's fall "budget management process," in which commissioners consider reshuffling dollars distributed to city bureaus during the annual city budget decision in June. This years' fall budget proposal, introduced by Mayor Ted Wheeler last week, aims to address issues with homelessness, trash collection, police response, and economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Portlanders are relying on us to lead this city through these increasingly challenging times with the funds that we have available," said Wheeler Wednesday.
Wheeler's budget proposal includes a $7.8 million bundle reserved for public safety programs, including an ambitious plan to expand the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) by 200 officers and 100 additional unarmed staff within three years. To reach that goal, Wheeler proposed investments in recruitment and retention programs within the PPB, which currently has 127 vacant officer positions. This includes a plan to hire back 50 previously retired PPB officers over the next two years and to offer hefty signing bonuses to new hires.
"Gun violence in our community is out of control and Portland can't wait any longer to get it right," said Shawn Michael, a Black father and grandfather who testified Wednesday. "Too many people are dying that look like me and my family. This crisis we face is multifactorial and can not solely be solved by simply adding additional police. In addition to adding police... we must address the mental health crisis."
Wheeler's budget includes $700,000 to support the Behavioral Health Emergency Coordination Network (BHECN), a program meant to replace the city's now-shuttered Sobering Center, a place where people could recover from alcohol or substance use instead of being sent to jail. His proposal also included funding for the PPB's Behavioral Health Unit, a team that responds to mental health crises, as well as funds to expand the Portland Street Response to cover the entire city by spring 2022.
The additional funds for PPB have the support of the Portland Police Association (PPA), the union representing rank-and-file PPB officers.
"Any conversation about reinforcing officers I support," said PPA President Aaron Schmautz in an interview with the Mercury Wednesday. Yet, Schmautz said, “In order to be properly staffed, we need to double the number of police officers in Portland right now." PPB currently employs 789 sworn police officers. With all vacant positions filled and Wheeler's proposed officer expansions added, that number would only increase to 1,116 in three years' time.
Others pointed to recently released data showing that, over the past five years, times when PPB had more officers didn't always equate to a lower crime rate.
"The mayor peddles law enforcement as a deterrent to crime, said Seemab Hussaini, an organizer with Unite Oregon. "These solutions aren't based on sound data."
Many individuals threw their support behind Wheeler's policing proposals, including people who say they live in fear of being hit by a stray bullet during a citywide surge in gun violence and small business owners who've had their stores damaged and robbed in the past year.
"Since the pandemic started, we've had four break-ins at our shop," said Emre Taskin, who moved to Portland from Turkey with his wife to open a rug shop in Southeast Portland. "We expect the alarm to go off anytime. Sometimes we are there before the police arrive. It's frustrating, we have no one here. We just want to feel safe, conduct our business in peace, earn money, and pay our taxes, but it's getting harder and harder and harder."
Others baselessly equated homeless residents with crime, urging the city to direct police to "clean up the streets." The proposed budget package does address the city's growing homeless crisis, putting nearly $19 million toward programs that would expedite homeless encampment sweeps "fivefold," increase the number of available shelter beds, and create a network for homeless outreach providers in Portland's Old Town/Chinatown to seamlessly connect unhoused residents with needed social services. Scott Kerman, director of homeless service provider Blanchet House, stressed the importance of supporting these types of programs before council Wednesday.
"Imagine what better outcomes may be gained when the people we serve encounter and build trust with specialists who work across agencies," said Kerman, "and when teams of specialists can build on previous experiences with clients across the course of a single day and several weeks."
Kerman also used his testimony to push back on others' misconceptions about unhoused Portlanders.
"I want to make something very clear: Housing insecure people are not dangerous criminals," said Kerman. "They are suffering, they are despondent, and they are scared. Their need for compassion, restoration, and healing is extreme."
Others pointed to the perceived contradiction of city leaders pushing for police expansion after using their votes to dissolve several PPB programs during 2020's budget cycle, with one man accusing the council of "flip-flopping."
Presbyterian minister Aric Clark questioned why the city was reinvesting in police without acknowledging the violence PPB inflicted on protesters in 2020, including himself.
"I’m here to urge you to recognize the real nature of the crisis that we are confronting and not to be misled into reinvesting into the failed strategies of the past," said Clark. "Do not use this as an opportunity to further militarize our city. The next time I’m at a protest chanting the names of those killed by police I don't want it to be because, in a rush to clean up downtown and draw in tourism revenue, our City Council hired hundreds of armed cops instead of being visionary enough to invest in true public safety."
Several urged council to further disinvest in policing, whether that be by stopping the plan to rehire retired officers or defunding police stings that impact sex workers.
City commissioners were given an opportunity Wednesday to introduce amendments to Wheeler's proposed budget package. That included an amendment pitched by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty that would keep the city from hiring back former PPB officers with a track record of misconduct or unconstitutional policing. The amendment passed, with Wheeler acknowledging that his proposal to rehire retired cops would fail without Hardesty's support—which this amendment secured.
After the hours of public testimony, Hardesty signaled that she may be interested in adding new amendments based on the testimony before City Council votes on the entire budget next week. But council procedure limits commissioners from tacking on new budget amendments the day of a budget vote, meaning Hardesty's add-ons would delay the budget vote for several weeks.
Hardesty was specifically concerned that all of the funding promised in Wheeler's budget proposal were one-time funds, meaning that long-term programs reliant on the funding would need to find new funding sources in the next budget cycle.
"I do have some concerns about the longterm implications of some of the stuff we’re hearing tonight," said Hardesty. "I’m feeling rushed through no fault of my own. I would have liked to have more time to have more information."
She pointed to last year's fall budget monitoring process, when commissioners chose to delay a budget vote after several asked for more information on $18 million in proposed cuts to PPB, introduced by Hardesty and then-Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. Those cuts failed to pass, even after delays.
"I find it ironic tonight that everybody's ready to vote," said Hardesty. No commissioners backed her concerns.
Commissioners agreed to stay on schedule with a planned Wednesday, November 17 vote on the fall budget package. If Hardesty introduces any last-minute amendments at that meeting, they could only be approved with an unanimous council vote.