As the city of Portland prepares to make deep cuts to avoid a projected budget deficit for the 2024-25 fiscal year, Portlanders are pressuring city council to keep Portland Street Response off the chopping block.

Residents showed up in force during a budget listening session Wednesday, April 10, insisting the non-police, alternative response program not only be safe from budget cuts, but be expanded to a 24/7 service. 

Cathy Spofford, a former social worker who spent more than two decades working in public health, was one of several who appeared virtually for the hybrid meeting to testify about the critical role Portland Street Response (PSR) plays in responding to residents in mental distress. 

Spofford said during her career, she worked primarily with people who were unhoused and had mental health and addiction issues.

“When I was working, we didn't have a Portland Street Response option,” Spofford recalled. “We didn’t often have to call the police, but when we did, it was very traumatizing for the people who were in crisis and already traumatized.”

She said the program’s staff are trained in de-escalation and have the expertise to respond to mental health crises, relieving police from having to respond to those calls.

“Let the Portland Police focus on their mission of public safety, and Portland Street Response focus on helping people who are in crisis.”

Spofford’s plea to the council was followed by over a dozen more.

“The Portland Street Response has a brief but proven track record," Terry Dalsemer wrote in testimony submitted to the council. “So many problematic issues on the street can be quickly de-escalated, if not resolved, by trained mental health personnel.”

Dalsemer said with adequate funding, the program can “enhance our city and calm the fears of many.”

The onslaught of comments comes on the heels of a proposal to severely slash PSR’s budget, to make up for ballooning overtime and staff costs in the fire bureau, which houses PSR. 

Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, who oversees the fire bureau, and ultimately PSR, pushed back on what he called “false expectations” for the program.

Citing 2023 data that shows police response times are getting slower, despite an exponential call volume increase for PSR, Gonzalez said investing more in PSR won’t alleviate staffing needs for fire or police bureaus.

“I think that’s a false narrative,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think it’s supported by the data.”

He said the program plays an important role in the scope of city services, but suggested the public is putting too much stock in the capacity of PSR to be a homelessness response and solutions team.

Two weeks prior to the budget listening session, members of Mayor Ted Wheeler’s staff insisted the city would find a way to fund and stabilize the program. Wheeler stopped short of reiterating those promises on Wednesday.

“There will be something in this budget for everyone to be upset about,” Wheeler cautioned during the listening session ahead of the 2024-25 budget adoption. “This is probably the toughest budget I’ve had to do in 18 years of public service.”

The two-hour listening session was one of three scheduled before the council moves into the next phase of budget planning. Other sessions are scheduled for 10 am Saturday, April 13 and again at 6:30 pm Monday, April 15.

How’d we get here?

Citing inflation and increased personnel costs, diminished growth in property tax revenue, and softening of business license fees, city financial leaders say Portland’s anticipated expenses will far outstrip its projected revenues. In response, Wheeler asked each city bureau to trim 5 percent from its requested budget, with the exception of fire, police, and public safety departments.

But even with budget cuts, the mayor and the city's finance department are painting a bleak picture for the next fiscal year, which begins in July.

Wheeler said that, even with the proposed budget reductions, the finance team is coming up “about $20 million short” in the proposed budget.

Tim Grewe, the city’s budget director, reminded the public that the city has limited general funds at its disposal. Grewe said discretionary funding accounts for only 10 percent of the city’s budget, meaning the rest is more or less earmarked for a specific use.

“Ninety percent of city resources are dedicated from restricted resources such as utility rates, grants, capital projects supported by bonds and debt issuance, and dedicated tax levies,” Grewe said. 

The city is also grappling with higher than anticipated costs for a host of voter-mandated city government reform measures that need to be operational by January 1, 2025.

Wheeler said decisions about where to allocate limited funds will be guided by public priorities.

“The public has told us clearly in recent years homelessness, public safety, and gun violence reduction, addressing livability issues and responding to the economic consequences of COVID and restoring our city–those have been priorities that the public has been very clear about,” Wheeler said.

Wednesday’s listening session was dominated by Portlanders urging an expansion and stable funding for PSR, but others also urged the city not to disinvest in gun violence reduction resources. Others testified about the need for increased funding for neighborhood associations and the district coalition in Southwest Portland, which will soon include more than 30 associations.

More info on the budget process and opportunities for input is available on the city's budget office site.