It’s budget time for the City of Portland and things couldn’t be stickier. With the persistence of a lagging economy and a push to stay on pace with the most current technologies, the prioritization of civic responsibilities couldn’t be more important than it is right now for your City officials.

Like it seems to happen this time each year, bureau officials are pulling out their sacrificial lambs to meet the cut marks proposed by City Council due to projected shortfalls in revenues, 2-percent cuts for public safety bureaus and 4-percent cuts for everyone else.

Such is the case for the Police Bureau. Last month each bureau was asked to put together two lists: one of potential budget reductions and the other of new or existing programs that aren’t funded on an ongoing basis. The Police Bureau listed six programs under the add package valued at $12.01 million and five programs under the potential cut package that would save the bureau $2.82 million.

As you can easily see there is a lot more adds than cuts, and the budget still has to be reduced two-percent. The bureau will need to cut out $2.8 million of its $156 million overall budget. Basically, the bureau would have to make all the cuts and add none of the new or existing programs to meet the cut target.

This is why now, more than ever, it is vital that citizens get involved and let City officials know what is important to them.

This is the sentiment of one grassroots group who is taking a stand against the Police Bureau’s proposition to disband its Mounted Patrol Unit (MPU), which would produce an ongoing savings of $570,691 and one-time revenue of $78,472 from selling off its inventory. The package would eliminate one MPU police officer position, one police sergeant position and 2.9 fulltime nonsworn positions. Four other positions would open up in the downtown Bike Patrol Unit, but wouldn’t necessarily be filled by MPU officers.

Stable attendant Roxanne Martin gives a stable tour to Portland area 4-H clubs.

The group—Friends of Portland’s Mounted Patrol—has begun to garner a lot of support. The group created a Facebook page that gained 900 supporters in a week. The page currently has 1,163 members.

“We are trying to do everything we can to gain support for the Mounted Patrol Unit by showing the value the unit bring to our city,” said Robert Ball, a board member with Friends of Portland’s Mounted Patrol. “One way we have done this is by educating people on what it is the mounted police actually do.”

He continued, “There is a myth that the mounted patrol doesn’t prevent crime and that they are just a public relations tool. That just isn’t true.”

In fact, the mounted patrol officers are said to be one of the City’s best crime deterrents because they are so visible and distinct in the central city corridor. Plus, their vantage point is higher than a bike patrol officer and their accessibility is better than a car patrolman. And not only do they deter criminal activities, they make between 100 and 150 arrests a month. Most of which are for street-level crimes like drug dealing. During the 1980s, when the MPU was at its peak staffing, the unit accounted for 30-percent of all misdemeanor arrests in Portland.

The MPU stables

“They are the most visible form of police because people remember it when they see them,” said Patty Gardner, the land use chair for the Pearl District Neighborhood Association, which has submitted an official letter of support for saving the MPU. “From a deterrent point-of-view they are the best police we have in our neighborhood.”

While the MPU does a great job deterring crime in Downtown and Old Town-Chinatown, its main responsibility is, and always has been, controlling crowds around Portland.

“The MPU is used mainly in crowd control specifically for demonstrations and riots,” said Detective Mary Wheat, the public information officer for the Portland Police Bureau. “While they patrol mainly the downtown and Old Town area, they can also be transported out to other areas of the city.”

Ball noted that one officer on a horse can do the crowd control work of about 20 officers on foot. But not only does the MPU help in instances of riots and demonstrations, the unit also plays an integral roll in maintaining safety during any festival or large event.

“First Thursday is an excellent example,” said Gardner. “The MPU plays a major role in making sure this event goes on without any problems each month.”

The other value of the MPU that this group is trying to get out to the people of Portland is the public relations aspect. Something the Police Bureau is in need of fixing with mounting excessive force complaints and other lawsuits.

In 2002, then-Mayor Vera Katz said that the MPU, “puts a gentle face on this city.”

Officer Dane Reister on patrol in Old Town-Chinatown.

“The mounted police promote positive interactions between police officers and the public because they are so approachable,” said Ball. “They not only make people feel safer because of their visibility, but they also change the way people view the police in general.”

Ball pointed to a tape he recently saw of three officers: one on foot, one on bike and one on a horse. The officer on foot was the first to arrive. No one paid any attention to his arrival and went on with their daily lives. Then the bike officer arrived and a few people stopped to chat. Finally, a police officer showed up on horse. Within a few minutes there was an entire crowd surrounding the horse and officer.

“The people that live down here have such a strong connection to the horses and the officers that ride them,” said Gardner. “They have become a part of our community and it would be sad to see them go.”

MPU's covered outdoor riding arena in the Pearl District.

Gardner pointed to the City of Vancouver, B.C. as an example of the affect an MPU can have on a community. The Mounted Police Squad is so popular in Vancouver that each officer and horse has their own collectible trading card that they hand out to the public.

“The MPU brings a unique value to our city,” said Ball. “I mean, how often do you get to see horses in an urban setting?”

The Friends of Portland’s Mounted Patrol is in the process of getting literature on the MPU out to local businesses and community organizations in order to gain more support. The group is encouraging supporters to write letters to, and call, each of the City Commissioners.

“We are fully aware of the budget issues that are facing the City,” said Ball. “But we are really concerned that if the MPU is cut, it will never return again.”

He continued, “Although it would produce a rough savings of $580,000, that number isn’t indicative of the several millions of dollars that have been spent getting the unit going over the years.”

Officers Dane Reister and Ryan Albertson on patrol in Old Town-Chinatown.

So, what would happen to the horses and stables if the MPU were to be cut?

“We have not made any decisions about the horses being sold or donated,” said Detective Wheat. “The stables and building belong to the Portland Development Commission and would go back to them.”

She continued, “The Mayor will make all the final decisions about the budget and cuts. We can’t make any statements about the MPU being cut or not, only that we have recommended the cut because we were asked to cut our budget.”

And this brings us back to the beginning. The City of Portland and each bureau associated with it is going to have to make budget cuts for the next fiscal year. There is nothing that can be done about it. But, there is plenty of opportunities to get involved and make sure City officials know what is most important to citizens.

For more information on the proposed budget cuts and add packages for each bureau, please click here.

For more information on Friends of Portland’s Mounted Patrol, or how to get involved, please click here.

For more information on the Mounted Patrol Unit within the Portland Police Bureau, please click here.

View the slideshow for more images of the Portland Police Mounted Patrol or visit our Flickr gallery:

Photos © 2010 Kenneth Aaron, Neighborhood Notes