Portland city councilors worked late into Monday night to put the finishing touches on a city budget that was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic and eliminates 65 jobs, including laying off about three dozen workers, to make up for lost revenue.
The council unanimously approved a budget that would leave property taxes unchanged – a slight increase over the budgets recommended by the city manager and the council’s finance committee.
Councilors struggled with finding ways to fund their priorities while also preparing for any unexpected financial repercussions of the pandemic. Councilors narrowly voted to increase parking meter rates, while also adding back spending for ongoing special projects, a sustainability associate and a maintenance position that is important to fully implementing the city’s anti-pesticides ordinance.
Councilors also voted to add over $56,000 to rent eight portable toilets, which would be cleaned regularly and monitored, to provide more restrooms to the city’s homeless population now that the Preble Street Resource Center is no longer available. The changes eliminated a potential property tax decrease. Instead, the mil rate is expected to remain unchanged at $23.31 per 1,000 of valuation.
Mayor Kate Snyder offered some brief remarks on the budget prior to the council’s deliberation. She urged the council to pass a budget that’s in line with the finance committee’s recommendations, which was a slight variation from the city manager’s budget.
Snyder said the council should be cautious, given the uncertainty of the upcoming year, because of the pandemic.
“It’s the not knowing for sure if city revenues will keep up with predictions,” she said. “It’s not knowing how people’s personal bank accounts will fare through these next many months. It’s not knowing how businesses will survive as the weather gets colder and the challenges so great.”
City Manager Jon Jennings warned that the council might have to adjust the budgets throughout the year.
“There is a possibility we may need to come back to the council midyear for further cuts or further revenue in case the projections don’t hold up or if we see a second wave or any number of issues,” he said.
The roughly $256.7 million budget is $6.8 million smaller than the current budget. That includes $202 million in general fund expenses, which are down $4.2 million. In July, voters approved a $119.9 million school budget. Although that’s $2.5 million, or 2.1 percent, higher than last year’s budget, it does not require a property tax increase.
Jennings was prepared to present a modest 1.8 percent tax increase to councilors without layoffs in March before the virus took hold. But Jennings redrafted the spending plan to account for an estimated loss of about $12 million in non-property tax revenue, with the bulk of the losses coming in parking revenue ($3.2 million), parks and recreation programming ($2.5 million) and cruise ship fees ($2 million).
To close the gap, Jennings proposed eliminating 65 full-time equivalent positions, resulting in about 37 layoffs, mostly in parks and recreation. Much of that department’s programming and the revenue it generates have been canceled. And six of the city’s eight unions will not receive a cost-of-living allowance this year.
The council’s finance committee made some minor adjustments by increasing parking meter rates by 25 cents an hour, a move expected to generate an additional $250,000. The committee also removed $12,000 from its own budget: $8,000 for travel and $4,000 for food.
Councilors voted 5-4, with Nicholas Mavodones Jr., Kimberly Cook, Spencer Thibodeau and Snyder opposed, to increase parking meter rates,
Supporters said increasing meter rates was a reasonable way to pay for one-time expenditures such as $75,000 for the Charter Commission, $75,000 for the racial equity steering committee and independent review of police, and $7,800 in stipends for members of the racial equity committee. Those budget additions, plus a $12,000 reduction in the council’s own budget, were approved unanimously.
Ray said parking rates at areas garages are at least $3 an hour and average about $5.
“Our on-street parking is still significantly cheaper than our parking garage fees,” Ray said.
But Mavodones said parking revenue may not be a sure bet, especially during the pandemic.
“I think banking on parking revenue is sketchy at best,” Mavodones said. “I think it’s well-intentioned. I’d love to be optimistic. But I don’t think we can bank on this revenue and it may be a deterrent to people coming and shopping downtown.”
Councilors also voted 5-4, with Mavodones, Thibodeau, Cook and Snyder opposed, to allocate $7,800 for stipends for members of the racial equity steering committee. Snyder said she’d like to see the council have a broader discussion about providing stipends to other volunteer boards, rather than providing them to just this one committee.
But Councilor Tae Chong said this committee work is different than others, saying that people are signing up to have difficult conversations about racism. Chong said he has served on similar committees and at times felt like he was “on display.”
“This is going to be an emotional commission,” Chong said. “There’s going to be some trauma that people talk about.”
Twelve people offered public comment on the budget. Several residents said they would support a tax increase to shore up parks and environmental sustainability initiatives. And two people called for deeper cuts to the police department.
Woodford Street resident Cait Vaughn said more money should be shifted to public health and social service programs. In addition to cutting the police budget, Vaughn said she would pay higher taxes.
“I don’t think enough has come out of our police budget,” she said. “We don’t have our health and human services fully funded in our city.”
Michael Kebede, who owns a home on Brackett Street, said the city should be offering targeted property tax relief, like it did with its P-STEP program, which provides additional rent and property tax relief to low-income seniors.
“The blanket property tax cut that is in the budget package does benefit me and I think that’s fundamentally unfair,” Kebede said.
Bayside resident Avery Yale Kamila urged the council to restore cuts that would impact the city’s anti-pesticides and heritage tree ordinances.
“The fact that people are protesting for a reallocation for police funding for social services, instead we’re getting a decimation of our beloved parks department is just so disheartening,” Kamila said.
Ethan Hipple, the interim parks director, said that the city’s parks department is still running its core programming, including before and after-school care. The budget cuts reflect recreational programs that the city cannot safely operate during the pandemic, including large gathering events like those at Merrill Auditorium, the Portland Expo and Hadlock Field. He said those programs would be rebuilt once it’s safe to do so.
“The vast majority of these cuts were to programs where we literally could not run the program safely or at all,” Hipple said. “As soon as we have a safe way to bring those programs back we want and we are dedicated to.”
Note: This story was updated Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. to correct the address and spelling of the first name of Cait Vaughn.