By Don MacGillivray
This year’s budget for the City of Portland Parks and Recreation Bureau (PP&R) indicates a major disconnect between PP&R and the City’s annual budget process. Parks needs more money and City Council decided that they should cut their budget by $6.3 million–the largest percentage cut of any major bureau. The cuts mostly involved recreational staff layoffs and closing popular recreation centers.
The root of the issue lies in the distribution of Portland’s General Fund. The needs of Police, Fire, Transportation, and other major bureaus take priority. The general fund is 14 percent of the city budget, the other 86 percent is for mandated uses.
This year the mayor will fund the Office of Homeless Services with $38 million. This gave PP&R management, volunteers and the public a lot of worry and dominated the agenda of the Parks Advisory Committee.
Parks are an integral part of a city. The question is how do we preserve and improve our beautiful public green spaces. Portland’s demographic trends show that the parks in Portland must grow to meet future demands. Parks increase the value of nearby homes, indirectly yielding an additional $3 million in property taxes annually. They are assets to the business community and our growing economy. Unfortunately, these services are not viewed as essential.
The parks budget process for this year has been an eye opener for everyone involved. The problems are systemic and have been getting worse each year. Some of the reasons sited are internal mismanagement and the Public Employee Retirement System( PERS) costs but the Parks Advisory Committee is determined to find new and different ways to insure adequate budgets into the future.
The strategies being developed to shift to a more stable financial future will be illustrated in the forthcoming Parks 2035 Vision. The Vision will discuss the existing financial constraints and what could be accomplished with better financial strategies.
The parks and recreation funding situation is a problem nationwide. Budgets are tight, maintenance is falling behind, and programs are suffering. States generate on average 45 percent of their own funding for their operating expenses, and funding from governments is not keeping up with the needs. Many are looking for more ways to provide the money needed to maintain them. Gone are the days when the Oregon Highway Trust Fund supported the state parks system. It is likely that the user fees will slowly increase over time.
The Parks Advisory Committee stated that the funding conversation must start immediately and it must include a variety of options from both public and private sources. Parks must be willing to cut the budgets of its other departments so that recreation does not continue to be the biggest loser.
One idea is to have a Parks district. Other metropolitan areas, like Seattle, have gone this route. A local example of this is the Multnomah County Library District. The elected Multnomah County Commissioners form the board and appoint the advisory council. Similarly a Parks district could be adopted through a ballot measure passed at a future local election. Taxes that are generated by the district will not go into the general fund, but will remain with the district for use by the park system. This is currently done in Seattle and Tacoma Washington, Chicago, and Washington D.C.
Both in the past and elsewhere revenue levies are a very good source of funding. Even though the city general fund money is problematic, it must continue to be a major source of funding. One of the advantages of the levy concept is that the use of the funding is clearly described so that the voters know exactly what they are paying for. After it is passed there is follow-up to see that the Parks District is accountable for spending the money as described. A levy is intended to be used over many years so it provides its resources for a long period of time without being renewed. When it is successful there is a strong likelihood that it can be continued.
There are a variety of other ideas about raising additional funds for Parks such as:1) reduce energy costs by installing energy efficient lighting, upgrading mechanical equipment, and conserving energy and water, 2) restructure operations to reduce management expenses, 3) allow monetary donations as part of the motor vehicle registrations, 4) reach out to other organizations for opportunities to partner with their programs, 5) sell vanity license plates which would bring in money and increase the visibility of Parks, and 6) increase the tax on gasoline or real estate transactions to support parks.
The future may be difficult for parks, but positive changes will happen over time.