By Ellen Spitaleri
A normal summer for Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) features crowded swimming pools, alert lifeguards and plenty of outdoor activities for families and seniors.
However, the summer of 2020 was anything but normal.
In early March, PP&R closed community centers and pools, canceled summer recreation programming and took other steps to comply with public health restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19. The extended closure has created a financial challenge for the organization because of its dependence on fees.
Voters in November will get the opportunity to vote on Measure 26-213, a local option tax levy that would provide PP&R with about $48 million per year for five years if approved.
A homeowner with a home assessed at $200,000, approximately Portland’s median value, would pay about $151 per year or about $13 a month, according to Tim Becker, Interim Director of Communications for the City of Portland.
Unlike many other city services, PP&R depends on fees from customers who attend swim lessons, exercise classes, summer camps and paid recreation programs to fund those programs. Fees fund nearly $15 million of the $35 million budget for the organization’s Recreation Division.
If Measure 26-213 passes, levy funds would allow Portland Parks to “deliver recreational programs, including community centers and pool operations, community food access/nutrition programs, environmental education, summer camps and youth employment opportunities,” Becker said.
In addition, funds would provide for natural area maintenance, opportunities for youth to connect with nature and money to care for the city’s trees.
Although some people may not realize it, PP&R’s Urban Forestry division manages and regulates 1.2 million trees located in city parks as well as nearly a quarter million street trees and innumerable other trees located on private property, according to Tim Collier, Community Relations Manager for PP&R.
“Planting more trees is crucial to improving air quality, public health and livability by enhancing and maintaining the health of the urban forest,” he added.
With additional funding from the levy, PP&R would provide proactive maintenance to trees in the parks and natural areas and would provide support for their tree planting program.
Passage of the levy would allow Parks to plant about 1,750 street and private trees per year.
PP&R hopes to address the disparity between the number of trees west of the Willamette River, compared to eastside.
Data shows that 56 percent of land in Portland west of the Willamette River is covered by trees. East of the Willamette, where 80 percent of Portland’s population lives, only 21 percent of the land is covered by trees.
“That percentage is lower than the tree canopy coverage of Los Angeles,” Collier noted.
He added that trees benefit people, wildlife and the overall climate by reducing stormwater runoff; providing shade, which saves energy and reduces heat in cities; improving air quality; providing wildlife habitat; sequestering carbon, which helps mitigate climate change; and increasing property values.
The current budget allows PP&R to deliver “modified services within the constraint of public health guidelines,” Becker noted.
This fall, PP&R will use its general fund to run its Fitness in the Parks programs, SUN Schools community and food security supports, virtual preschool and virtual activities with no or minimal fees.
Parks seeks to address the digital divide, connect the community to wi-fi access and deliver recreation services through programs like Free Lunch + Play.
With additional levy funds, PP&R would have the ability to rehire staff, deliver services as described in the ballot measure and reduce the costs for the public to participate in Park offerings.
The levy would have a community oversight committee appointed to review levy expenditures.
“That committee would report annually to City Council and the public. The levy would be audited annually to ensure that services and programs funded by the levy are consistent with voter intent,” Becker added.
Additional levy information at bit.ly/PPRNov2020Levy.