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June 13, 2021

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Portland leaders approve $5.7B budget, slow Portland Street Response expansion

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Portland’s elected leaders approved a budget for next year that will pour millions of dollars into citywide cleanup efforts and programs to spur economic recovery but take a more cautious approach in expanding a non-police alternative to some public safety calls.

Thursday evening’s vote was unanimous. The City Council is scheduled to take a final vote on the city spending plan in mid-June.

The decision to slowly scale up a pilot for the Portland Street Response program, which sends an unarmed paramedic and social worker to assist those experiencing homelessness or in a mental health crisis, marked a rare moment of disagreement among the City Council during the more than six-hour virtual meeting.

After approving several dozen amendments, most of them minor, but rejecting an acceleration of the non-police street response program, the council voted to enact a $5.7 billion budget that Mayor Ted Wheeler unveiled less than two weeks ago.

The mayor said the city’s spending plan is grounded in a series of priorities he and his council colleagues established earlier this year. Those included a focus on community safety, tackling Portland’s homelessness crisis and helping the city bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic.

“This budget dovetails neatly with those core priorities,” Wheeler said. “I think we’re laying the foundation for a strong and equitable recovery.”

Beginning July 1, bureaus and city offices will spend a collective $3.7 billion, down from $3.8 billion in the current year’s pandemic-revised budget, budget documents show. The rest of the money will be banked or transferred to other city accounts.

An infusion of federal relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan and revenue from a newly enacted park levy will help reduce the hit to city coffers caused in part by the coronavirus pandemic and avoid cuts at nearly every city bureau.

One notable exception is a $3 million reduction to Portland Police Bureau, which represents a 1.4% decrease in bureau spending compared to its current budget.

Overall, city employment will rise by 27 full-time equivalent positions, entirely from parks levy-funded positions in the parks bureau, according to the approved budget.

The budget also freezes cost-of-living adjustments and merit increases for many city of Portland staff, which totals more than 6,800 employees, documents show.

Among the notable spending items highlighted by the mayor and city commissioners:

$5.7 million for litter collection and other cleanup efforts, including $3.4 million for graffiti removal.

$2 million to help develop new homeless shelters with Multnomah County.

$700,000 for minority chambers of commerce.

$500,000 for small businesses vandalized or damaged to cover cost of repairs.

$300,000 to provide $20 an hour jobs to people experiencing homeless to assist with citywide cleanup.

$269,000 to help relocate struggling food cart vendors displaced by the construction of a Ritz-Carlton hotel downtown to Ankeny Square in the North Park Blocks.

$250,000 for services to help transgender people facing housing insecurity.

The council’s approved budget will beef up bureau operations in the coming year by using about a third of the $108 million the city’s expected to receive this year in federal relief funds as well as $14 million from the parks tax levy voters approved in November.

Despite staving off crippling cuts to city bureaus and services, commissioners did not get everything they’d hoped for.

“This was the best compromise we could get in the short period of time we had,” said Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty before casting her vote in favor. “There are aspects of this budget that I support 100% and there are some serious disappointments.”

Wheeler had proposed that the city spend nearly $1 million in the coming fiscal year to continue the non-police response program to crises on the street in the Lents neighborhood, where it was launched a pilot earlier this year.

Hardesty, as the commissioner in charge of the fire bureau, oversees that program. Wheeler said he wanted to wait until an unspecified future time to begin spending another $2.6 million to expand the program citywide.

Hardesty wanted all the money to be made available from the outset of the fiscal year beginning July 1, given that the City Council voted unanimously last June to reallocate $4.8 million from the Portland Police Bureau budget to the non-police response team.

Commissioner Carmen Rubio supported Hardesty’s amendment, which also garnered the backing of several Oregon state and federal lawmakers as well as those advocating for police reform and the homeless.

“Our unhoused neighbors in crisis don’t have the luxury of time,” Rubio said. “And because they don’t, we don’t.”

But it failed to get the required three votes to pass as Commissioners Mingus Mapps and Dan Ryan joined the mayor in arguing that they want a chance to evaluate the pilot’s call volume, the community’s experience with the team and other metrics before attempting to scale the program citywide.

“I have one priority, and only one — that’s outcomes,” Wheeler said. “There are far too many people on the streets of this city who struggle under the burden of a wholly inadequate mental health delivery system.”

Meanwhile, the council’s spending plan on the police bureau is largely in line with what the city budget office recommended earlier this year.

Under the plan, the bureau would accelerate the hire of 30 new officers to counterbalance anticipated attrition over the next two years. It would also add 22 new community safety officers — unarmed support staff who can respond to low priority calls.

A pair of amendments introduced by Hardesty on Thursday and passed by the council will prohibit Portland police from spending the $5.2 million earmarked for the new officers on anything other than those hires and require the bureau to develop a program evaluation for the community safety officers.

The council also attached a handful of other notable amendments to the approved budget. Among them: an additional $3 million in federal stimulus funds to continue operating three large outdoor homeless shelters in Portland and a commitment keep those working for the Independent Police Review employed by the city after it implements a new police-oversight board approved by voters last year.

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