According to Mayor Ted Wheeler, city programs to help fight the homeless crisis are costing so much money, they are straining the budgets of other Portland agencies.
"If we were not experiencing the homeless crisis, we would have $33 million more dollars for other programs," Wheeler said, citing the city money spent on numerous homeless programs this fiscal year. "We would have a surplus, not a deficit."
Wheeler called such spending risky. He said it is only possible because the economy is strong, increasing projected city general fund revenue to a record $577.3 million next year. But if the economy slows in the near future, as some economists predict, the choice between homeless services and other programs would be stark.
Another pressing need is the replacement of the computerized system that collects taxes for both Portland and Multnomah County. Wheeler said the system is failing because the platform is no longer supported by the manufacturer and the employees who know how to maintain it are retiring. Replacing the system is estimated at $24 million.
Wheeler made his statements during a Wednesday afternoon press conference where he released his proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts on July 1. Although the city is expected to collect a record $577.3 million general fund dollars, the proposed budget still calls for spending cuts in some agencies.
The proposed budget also includes $2.5 million to delay potential Portland Parks & Recreation budget cuts caused by a projected $6.3 million shortfall. Wheeler said the additional money is intended to help the parks bureau plan a transitional budget that will delay the need to close community centers and minimize the number of staff to be laid off.
"Parks programs are very important to Portland, and I do not want to be rushed to approve cuts because the bureau discovered the shortfall," said Wheeler.
At the same time, Wheeler is not proposing any tax increases to raise additional general fund dollars. Wheeler said he is open to a new source of longterm revenue for the parks bureau, if that is what Parks Commissioner Nick Fish recommends after further study. But he did not endorse any of the new taxes or tax increases being considered by Commissioner Chloe Eudaly to raise an an additional $50 million for homeless services.
"I increased business licenses taxes $17 million last year for homeless services and public safety programs. The Oregon Legislature is considering a $2 billion tax increase for education right now that should be everyone's priority," Wheeler said.
Despite his concern of the ongoing level of homeless service funding, Wheeler said he is proposing spending close to the same amount next year, including around $32 million for the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services. An additional $113,338 is requested to hire a communications position for the office to better educate the public on its activities. An additonal $877,000 is requested to establish a Hygiene Street Response Program with three mobile showers and bathrooms for use by homeless people.
Wheeler also proposed funded several initiatives in his budget, including:
• A $60,004 request to hire a consultant to establish and implement a City Development Review Strategic Plan to better coordinate the activities of the seven development-related bureaus. The goal is have the bureaus work more closely together to reduce the time it takes to issue building permits and inspect projects. The consultant would work for the Bureau of Development Services.
• A $500,000 request to help fund a Rapid Street Response program to be developed to reduce 911 response times, and to identify and dispatch first responders more appropriately. The program is to be developed by a public safety working group organized by the Chief Administrative Officer. It is to be presented to the City Council no later than Nov. 15, 2019.
"Who other than police officers should respond to people in crisis in our streets," Wheeler asked.
• A $150,000 request for a market analysis of whether the Inclusionary Housing requirements for affordable units in market rate projects should be adjusted.
• A 661,103 request to launch a one-stop City 311 system to provide a first-stop for non-emergency community questions and requests. He expects to request additional funds for the service later in the fiscal year.
• A $200,000 request for a water taxi feasibility study to be conducted by Friends of Frog Ferry, a nonprofit organization that has proposed operating such a service.
The City Council public hearing on Wheeler's proposed budget is scheduled for Thursday, May 9, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the World Forestry Center — Miller Hall, 4033 S.W. Canyon Rd., Portland.
The council is scheduled to vote on the budget at its regular meeting on June 12.
You can read Wheeler's proposed budget