Dont let budget priorities slip away
During the past few months, much of the discussion about the city of Portland's 2010-11 budget has been focused on new or expanded initiatives that Mayor Sam Adams or city commissioners have proposed for funding.
Only occasionally has discussion veered into proposed reductions in funding for existing programs, or the termination of certain employee groups or programs. Such a case was the recent heated debate on the prospect of laying off 25 newly trained police officers and ending the city's downtown mounted police patrol - a debate that led to the firing of Police Chief Rosie Sizer.
Budgeting for a city of Portland's size is not easy. The city's total budget is $3.4 billion, which encompasses a $450.6 million general fund and numerous other resources, including state and federal funds and funding provided by bonding.
Overall, Adams has done a good of framing the new budget and keeping city finances in balance in the worst of economic times. Three community budget forums have been held in the past few months. And a number of Budget 101 meetings were convened with some special interest, advocacy and neighborhood groups. Meanwhile, the city's website provides detailed information.
Looking forward, we believe additional steps are required. For one, equal emphasis needs to be communicated about all programs, services and staffing that might be cut. This communication must go beyond simply focusing on new priorities to be funded or on those program cuts that happen to grab media attention. Without context about what is being lost, the city and citizens will wake up some day to find that funding decisions - year after year, bit by bit - cut away at the fabric of what once was deemed important.
Such strategic budgeting and communication will do more than inform the public in times when dollars are scarce. It will ensure that there is discussion of the policy consequences of budget cuts and shifting priorities.
And it will call attention to previous budget choices that left the city parks and transportation departments with huge unfunded liabilities for maintaining parks, pathways, streets and highways that we once were proud to build, but can no longer afford to maintain.