Citizens from all parts of Portland were afforded the opportunity to learn about, and weigh in on, the 2010-2011 budget process during three separate community budget forums held throughout the first week of March. The events were held at Montgomery Park in Northwest, Mt. Scott Community Center in Southeast and the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization’s community space in Northeast.



The City’s Office of Management and Finances and the Mayor’s Office sponsored the budget forum events, aptly titled: Tight Times, Tough Choices. Overall, 193 Portland residents attended the events, 129 of whom provided quantitative input during the budget cut exercise that took place during the forums.


Mayor Sam Adams

“This is an opportunity to give us your thoughts on how to balance the budget,” remarked Mayor Sam Adams during a short introduction to the first budget forum at Montgomery Park. “I choose those words wisely because your commissioners are going to make some tough decisions over the next couple of months.”



He continued, “Fortunately, your city has to make less cuts than others because we were progressive in making budget cuts when the economy first started to get bad.



The events kicked off with an overview of the budget process by Andrew Scott, manager with the Bureau of Financial Services. The overview covered where city money comes from, how it is dispersed and where in the process citizens can get involved.



The City’s approximate budget of $2 billion—$472 million in general funds—is made up of several different sources. These consist of: bond and note proceeds; leftover funds from the previous year’s balance; service charges and fees; taxes; grants; licenses and permits; and other miscellaneous sources of revenue (capital asset sales, private donations, etc.).


A full house at Montgomery Park, March 1, 2010.

One interesting fact brought up by Scott was that since the downturn of the economy there has been a significant drop in business licenses, resulting in less money for the City. In 2007-2008 business license fees brought in nearly $75 million. In 2008-2009 it dropped to $67 million. That number is at $56 million this year. Previous to this year, business license fees were the second highest moneymaker for the city behind property taxes. Now, utility license fees have passed business license fees.



“Over the past few years we have used excess business license fees to fund new programs,” said Scott. “But the programs aren’t part of the ongoing budget, so we are going to need to prioritize these programs and make cuts accordingly.”



The overview was followed by small group work sessions where participants were asked to evaluate discretionary budget options in the form of add packages and potential budget reductions. The budget is balanced without the additions or budget reductions. The City is asking for 4-percent reductions for non-public safety bureaus and 2-percent cuts for public safety bureaus.



The add packages consisted of 55 programs from various city bureaus that are either new or currently funded on a year-to-year basis and not included in next year’s budget. The add packages would cost a total of $33.23 million to fund. 


Some existing programs in these add packages include $2.82 million for homelessness prevention housing, $2 million for community economic development services and $1.2 million for civilian transportation of alcoholics and addicts from streets to sobering stations. Some of the possible new programs included $2.2 million to fund the hiring of 60 new police officers to offset an anticipated large retirement wave, $340,000 to add a new graffiti abatement program and $5.5 million to install new in-car video cameras for City police cars.



City bureaus were asked to provide potential cut packages for this year’s budget to offset the new programs. There were 37 potential budget reductions valued at $8.68 million. These reductions include $880,000 to delay the replacement of 1.5 fire engines for one year, $260,000 to reduce funding for the streetlighting operation and maintenance, and $150,000 to reduce arts education programming and outreach activities. 



The overwhelming dilemmas mentioned by most tables at all three of the events were that there were way to many additions compared to cuts and that there wasn’t enough information on each addition and cut to make informed decisions.

“

These events really help the City get a grasp of what the public want to see in the budget,” said Laurel Butman of the Offices of Management and Finances. “But the other thing it does is give the public an overarching understanding of how hard it is to budget during this economy."

Once the small group activities were completed all the participants were handed remote clickers and asked to answer some questions about the budget.



At the first event 50-percent of the participants noted that providing affordable housing should be the most important part of the budget for City Council in that participant’s particular neighborhood. 65-percent of the participants thought affordable housing was the most important thing to fund on a citywide level.



At the second event 42-percent of the participants thought Parks & Recreation is the most important part of the budget in their city. On the citywide level funding importance was a little more mixed. 33-percent said Parks & Recreation was most important, while 27-percent said public safety and 17-percent said affordable housing.



35-percent of the participants at the final event noted affordable housing as them most important initiative needing funding in their neighborhood, followed closely by transportation systems at 21-percent. On a citywide level, 29-percent of participants said affordable housing was most important, 26-percent said public safety and 17-percent said the transportation system.

While this exercise was designed to get at the differences in importance depending on what part of town the event took place, the data is slightly skewed because large numbers of representatives from specific organizations attended specific events.

At the first event a large portion of attendees noted they were involved with either Central City Concern or the Alliance of Minority Chambers. This is one reason affordable housing was such a prominent statistic. A large number of participants in the second event noted that they heard about the event through their local community parks, resulting in a high importance being put on Parks & Recreation during the event. The Bicycle Transportation Alliance had a Saturday bike ride that ended at the event. Although bike infrastructure was basically absent in the exercise, a large number of participants mentioned a priority should be put on transportation, particularly biking and infrastructure development.

Another interesting statistic was that 18-percent of attendees at the second event (Mt. Scott) were under the age of 24.

“I couldn’t believe all the youth participation at this year’s events,” said Butman. “It allowed some kids that can’t even vote a chance to express their concerns for the City.”


Voting in the live poll

Butman called the forums, “quite successful”. She noted that although attendance was steady from years previous, participation is actually up because the data from these events is coupled with online surveys and random phone samplings.

“I’m always a little weary about doing these events because it is harder to get people out with technology becoming so convenient,” she said. “But attendance was about the same as the last few years.”

She continued, “I was really surprised with the attendance at the Saturday event because the temperature was almost 70-degrees. But, there was a great bike ride to the event and everyone had a good time.”

While the budget forum events are over, there is still plenty of opportunity to provide input. The City will be conducting an online survey on the budget through May. Anyone wanting to participate should visit the web site: http://www.fmrsurvey.com/DHM/YCYC/YCYClogn.htm.

Any groups or organizations within the city that want to hold a similar event to the budget forums should fill out an application on the City’s budget web site: http://www.portlandoregon.gov/omf/index.cfm?c=26061. The City offers a few hundred dollars for snacks and provides a speaker and all the material to conduct a similar exercise.

Results from the live survey

Although there will be no time for public comment, the City Council will be starting its budget session today, March 15. The sessions take place over a two-week period in the Council Chambers at City Hall. The public is invited to attend.

For those just looking to learn a little more about the budget and how to get involved, please visit: http://www.portlandonline.com/communitybudget.