By Don MacGillivray

The City of Portland held a large Town-Hall Meeting April 2 to review and discuss the forthcoming City Budget at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) center in E Portland. The gymnasium, which holds well over two hundred people, was packed to overflowing. Participants had to win the lottery in order to have a chance to speak just two or three minutes.

Every year the city is forced to make budget cuts and every year, when especially deep budget cuts are suggested, hundreds of citizens attend to express their unhappiness with the loss of favorite programs.

The hearing was about the entire budget, but Portland’s Parks and Recreation  Department (PPR) got most of the attention. Described as “shocking, devastating, unjust and inequitable,” the cuts were significant and many impacted vulnerable citizens and their neighborhoods.

PPR is facing the biggest cuts of recent years. There is a potential $6.3 million funding shortfall for fiscal year 2019-2020 – about four percent of its budget. Two thirds of the budget is fixed costs so the remainder, much of which is in Recreation, must take the brunt of decrease.

All bureaus were asked to reduce their budgets by one percent in spite of the fact that the city is experiencing generally high revenues, so the public did not understand the need for such extreme cuts.

The total budget for the City of Portland is $3.85 billion. The total City of Portland General Fund budget is $621 million and the Parks Bureau budget is $285 million. After the budget hearings in April, the mayor will release his final budget in early May.

Portland’s parks budget is the 6th largest among the hundred biggest cities in America and it figures out to be $223 per resident. To maintain our world-class position with the demands of a growing population will not be easy.

A few of the gems within our parks are the Rose Test Garden in Washington Park, the oldest rose test garden in the country; Portland’s Forest Park; the Hoyt Arboretum; Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge; and the Chinese and Japanese Gardens.

The largest share of budget cuts will be within the staff of the Recreation Department. It is suggested that seventy full and part-time positions will be cut. Parks has used many temporary workers until recently when they were required to replace them with permanent union employees at a cost of over $4 million.

Many people believe that Parks and Recreation deserves to be fully-funded so that these services and their employees should not lose living wage jobs.

Parks suggests that one of their major swimming pools be closed. Columbia Pool in N Portland has an attendance of 58,000 people and has provided swimming lesson to 2,600 children and adults. Its neighbors say that it is a major asset to the area where many middle to lower income residents and people of color live.

Parks retorts that the pool will need $2 million in repairs very soon and they don’t have the money for the repairs. The neighbors have created a Save Columbia Pool page on Facebook.

It has been ten years since the expiration of the last maintenance bond levy for Portland Parks and Recreation.

Sellwood Community Center will also close because repair costs are estimated to be $8 million. Also on the list for closure are the Hillsdale and Fulton Community Centers, the Laurelhurst Dance Center, the Multnomah Arts Center, the Community Music Center, and St. Johns Racquet Center.

These are names that have frequently been used in the past by the Parks Bureau to restore funding to their budget by threatening closures. Each facility has a strong following that advocates each year for their ongoing use.

Many programs at the community centers have long waiting lists that show the need for more services, not fewer. As neighborhoods steadily increase in density, more indoor places to gather are needed, but not the large community centers, which seems to be what the City is building.

This is in a time when the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is advocating for strong, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods, which suggests smaller community centers.

More than a quarter of the operating funds in the Parks budget come from program fees like those in Recreation. There are significant structural budget problems caused by new programs, new facilities, and new services and therefore costs have increased while the fees have remained the same.

Either Parks must cut new programs and services or the fees must be increased. Parks has added one hundred full time employees and has had increases in: healthcare, Public Employee Retirement System (PERS), cost of living adjustments, and other benefits as well as programs and attendance.

There is projected to be a $6.3 million deficit unless things change. In the recent past, Parks has used temporary General Fund money to fill the gaps, but since the costs continue to increase it is time to permanently resolve these issues.

The budget must accommodate the need for funding, so it is either increase the funding or decrease the programs and activities. After much deliberation, the best decisions possible will be made, but some will be unpopular. The Mayor’s budget, released in early May, will be the final decision.

The general public has been blindsided by the proposed cuts and advocates involved with Parks Bureau know there have been budget problems for many years. The budget review approach the City Council takes with the bureau and their programs is not appreciated by those who must defend their pet programs from a monumental institution like City Hall.

More public budget meetings are being held, but they are in smaller venues and about specific bureaus. The Mayor is scheduled to release his budget May 1 and the budget document will be available from the City on May 8. There are budget work sessions on May 9, 14, and the final hearing on May 22 at City Council where the budget is expected to be approved.