Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

CITY COMMISSIONER Dan Saltzman is deservedly proud of the Portland Children's Levy—an 11-year-old property tax add-on that raises millions every year for the city's neediest children.

Given the teensiest opportunity, Saltzman will happily dispense laudations for a cherished program that's now added hunger to an admirable checklist that already included helping foster kids and reducing child abuse.

But make no mistake. Saltzman, ever the engineer and good-government wonk, loves the children's levy just as much for something else: its aura of technocratic elegance.

Almost often enough to justify a Portland City Hall drinking game, Saltzman freely touts the levy's most important mechanical provision: "We hold our administrative expenses"—things like salaries, audits, and office supplies—"to less than 5 percent," he told KGW more than two years ago (in a quote that made an Oregonian Politifact column).

Saltzman's been blowing that horn especially hard these days, what with never-ending voter angst over the city's arts tax and deep ire for a plan by Commissioner Steve Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales to pass a street fee.

It's a good message—positioning Saltzman as a guardian of public trust. The trouble is it's not quite the whole story.

Budget officials confirm the levy doesn't, in fact, have to keep its administrative costs below five percent every single year. That cap applies only over the lifetime of the levy—which needs voter approval every five years. The levy actually exceeded the cap, just a bit, according to the city's 2013-2014 budget.

Beyond that, the levy, every year, has relied on a modest city subsidy. All city offices and bureaus are expected to share the costs of back-office city functions—including the city attorney's office, facilities, human resources, and the city budget office. But the children's levy has never paid more than $25,000 a year for those services—a discount that gives it precious breathing room.

(That courtesy, interestingly enough, was extended to other funds, like the arts tax, this year.)

That's arguably the small stuff. More important is what happens when the money leaves the children's levy for the nonprofits it contracts with to do its work. The groups who receive the money are allowed to withhold up to 15 percent for administrative costs. All told, in 2013-2014, 9 percent of more than $8.4 million given to nonprofits was held for that purpose, on top of what the levy also kept back.

Saltzman's lofty rhetoric is careful to skip past those details—which would muddy his message. And it usually goes unchecked.

Not anymore. Novick, at a recent city council meeting, had the temerity to point out that the nonprofits aren't held to the same 5 percent cap Saltzman prizes.

It seemed like Novick was punching back over Saltzman's street fee reticence. (Saltzman's chief of staff and I played phone tag before this column went to press.) But Novick says the idea has bugged him for years—and that he once upbraided former County Chair Jeff Cogen for touting a similar cap on the campaign trail.

It offers, he says, the illusion of good government when the reality—good and bad—is far murkier.

And that, says Novick, is "problematic."