THE WONKS who run Portland's budget-making machine—doing yeoman's work balancing city hall politics against the need for fiscal sanity—have sketched out a rough outline for Charlie Hales' first six months in office. And the picture that emerges is... how shall I say it... bleak.
Not counting any last-minute changes under Mayor Sam Adams, Hales and next year's city council will have to excise a terrible sum of money—$25 million in ongoing spending—to keep the city from plunging into debt in the next five years.
Almost half is because of a tax-bill squeeze by the new county library district ($10 million). The rest can be blamed on federal police reforms ($5.4 million), and political decisions to invest more money in priorities like housing programs and economic development ($8.6 million).
Taken together, it's a giant rush of red ink to swallow after years of cuts and other budget patches under Adams—and it raises questions about which popular services Hales will consider "basic" enough to remain alive as he imposes the "basic services" agenda that got him elected.
But the crisis also firmly casts Hales in the political role he fought so hard to play: Portland's tough-talking, sober-minded financial savior. And Hales is itching to get on stage.
Already, Hales says he has no choice but to erase one of Adams' cherished lines in the sand: No more automatically shielding cops, firefighters, and 911 dispatchers from the worst cuts.
"No one gets a pass," Hales told me.
He's also talking about holding firm against city unions, heeding the words of budget planners who suggest the days of granting concessions worth millions, like the incredibly generous contract Adams gave to the Portland Police Association (PPA), are long past.
"We can't afford the status quo," he said about current contracts. "We'll ask everyone to share in making sacrifices."
(It's worth noting that some of the biggest city unions, like the cops and firefighters and others, initially backed Hales' foe, Jefferson Smith.)
Hales has already begun wielding his influence on the budget process around the city council. Documents released by financial planners confirm Hales will take over all city bureaus come next February and hold them until he releases his version of a budget in May. Commissioners will keep their current portfolios until February and may even retain day-to-day oversight while Hales technically sits as boss.
But Hales wants to make them sweat, and take a less parochial view, by waiting until May to reveal their next assignments.
"I'd like for all of us to think about the whole city," he says. "I'm deliberately not spending time thinking about which commissioners will get which bureau assignments."
That dynamic played out in a proposal by Commissioner Amanda Fritz to carve out a city budget office meant to answer to the entire city council, not just the mayor. Hales personally insisted Fritz strip a provision denying the mayor's ability to fire that office's director without a council vote.
The current council could have moved forward without Hales' blessing. But the three returning commissioners, Fritz, Nick Fish, and Dan Saltzman, also know Hales' reputation as someone with a temper. And a long memory.