Federal funds save most of Portland’s next budget

Civic Affairs

Mayor Ted Wheeler is proposing to use $29 million in emergency aid to offset city revenue losses caused by COVID-19

Downtown Portland during the coronavirus pandemic, April 24, 2020. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — When COVID-19 first shut down the economy, Mayor Ted Wheeler was facing a $20 million general fund shortfall in the city budget that takes effect on July 1.

But Wheeler unveiled a proposed general fund budget for the next fiscal year that is actually $2.7 million larger than the current one, thanks primarily to federal American Rescue Plan funds proposed by President Biden and approved by Congress.

“For the Portland City Council, the opportunity of 2021 is to work collaboratively to make investments that will help us continue to recover from the pandemic,” Wheeler said when the proposed budget was released on Thursday, April 29. “The budget I propose reflects my commitment to change and my optimism about Portland’s future.”

In fact, just about the only budget Wheeler is proposing to cut is that of the Portland Police Bureau. It would be reduced by $3 million, despite his push to reconstitute a unit to investigate shootings and killings that have surged since the middle of last year.

The only other proposed cut is a $70,000 reduction in the Bureau of Emergency Management.

All other bureaus would see their net budgets grow. The increases range from $30,191 for the City Attorney’s Office to nearly $12 million for Portland Parks & Recreation, thanks to an operating levy approved by voters at the November 2020 general election.

Wheeler’s proposed budget also would increase funding for the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services and the Portland Housing Bureau by $8.6 million to help address the homeless and affordable housing crises.

He also is proposing to fully fund the new Street Response Team — unarmed city staff, rather than police officers, responding to non-emergency calls such as people in mental health crises — and to support other non-police programs to reduce violence and arrests.

And he is proposing a series of economic initiatives, including $700,000 for minority chambers of commerce.

The general fund budget would increase from $591.1 million to $593.8 million. That includes the $29 million in one-time federal funds. And that is only the first round received by the city. More than 70% of federal funds aren’t yet in the city’s hands. Wheeler wants the City Council to decide how to spend the rest later this year.

Wheeler also wants the council to commit $8.3 million in coming federal funds to sustain the permitting and review functions at the Bureau of Development Services. Its fee-generated revenue is declining because construction is slowing down.

The council has the most control over how general fund dollars are spent. The total proposed budget including all funds is $5.7 billion, which is $156 million less than the current revised budget.

Wheeler released his proposed budget for the next fiscal year on Thursday, April 29. He said it fulfills the priorities set by the City Council earlier this year.

“In January, my colleagues and I identified three priorities for the next 12-18 months: addressing homelessness, community safety, and economic recovery. And, we reaffirmed the commitment we made last summer to center equity and climate in our COVID response and recovery efforts,” Wheeler said.

The release follows a year of upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. City discretionary General Fund revenues plunged when businesses closed, contributing to a $20 million general fund shortfall. Wheeler originally asked all bureaus except the homeless services office to submit 5% budget cuts. He used them to fashion $15.1 million in cuts, and also instituted wage freezes for non-represented employees and employees with open contracts, and drew upon available contingency resources.

By tapping the federal funds, Wheeler was able to propose restoring many of the cuts and increasing some services.

“Simply closing our budget deficit is not enough to meet our community’s needs. My proposed budget leverages significant new resources — including federal Rescue Plan resources and money from the voter-approved parks levy — to invest in our shared priorities. Despite the significant deficit in our General Fund, these additional resources have made it possible to fund important community-facing programs and services to continue building on progress we have made toward shared goals,” Wheeler said.

The police bureau budget became more controversial last year during the criminal justice movement sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in the custody of Minneapolis police. The City Council subsequently cut the police budget by $27 million, including $15 million in reductions for tactical units, including the elimination of the Gun Violence Reduction Team, which had been accused of discriminating against Black Portlanders. But that did not satisfy protesters who demanded a 50% budget cut.

The council is scheduled to hold a work session on Wheeler’s proposed budget on Tuesday, May 4. The preliminary budget is scheduled to be approved on Thursday, May 13. The final budget is scheduled to be approved on June 17.

The Portland Tribune and Pamplin Media Group’s papers are a KOIN 6 News media partner

The announcement with specific spending proposals can be found here.

More information about Wheeler’s proposed budget and the approval process can be found on the City Budget Office website here.

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