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Budget intrigue begins

As mayor creates spending priorities, backroom lobbying heats up

The innuendo is rife, the rumors are flying, and the pressure is getting more intense as Mayor Tom Potter prepares to roll out his proposed city budget for public comment Tuesday morning. Potter’s budget — his last as mayor — is only a draft, and will undergo many revisions and modifications before the City Council approves it to take effect July 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year. Nonetheless, the degree of maneuvering, posturing and paranoia is high, political observers say. In part, that reflects a consensus that the mayor’s budget is an influential document that sets the broad parameters for the city’s spending. But the chaos also reflects the peculiar dynamics inside City Hall this spring. Commissioner Erik Sten’s early resignation last week leaves behind a four-member council with the potential to deadlock on tie votes. In addition, Potter is not running for re-election and will leave next January, Commissioner Sam Adams is in a heated race to replace him, and Commissioner Randy Leonard is up for re-election, even though he is not thought to face tough opposition. “It’s an unusual situation,” says Bob Durston, a former aide to Sten who now works at the Portland Development Commission. “Almost anything could happen.” A City Hall insider adds: “The rumors and machinations are just fascinating. This is politics. There’s a finite pot of money and everyone wants their share.” The most recent figures, issued last month from the city’s Office of Management and Finance, projected that the city could count on approximately $388 million for its general fund for 2008-09, an increase of 4 percent, or $16 million more than the current year. The mayor’s office is reluctant to reveal specific spending numbers before Potter formally unveils them Tuesday — both so as not to steal his thunder, and to avoid antagonizing constituencies with phantom cuts before the final decisions have been made. ‘Trinkets’ out of favor In general, Potter’s budget will emphasize basic services, according to his chief of staff, Austin Raglione. “The mayor believes that we need to focus on core services,” she says, “and not on what he calls ‘trinkets.’ ” For example, according to Raglione, Potter will set aside money for public safety infrastructure, specifically a new computer-aided dispatch system for 911 operators, and the emergency 800-mhz radio system that allows police, fire and emergency workers to communicate with one another. “This is a critical public safety need,” she says. Potter also is concerned about the state of neighborhood infrastructure, such as the lack of sidewalks in the Cully neighborhood, and with the city’s “human infrastructure,” such as re-establishing a Human Relations Commission, she says. Until the budget is made public, rumors fill the void as various constituencies worry that it will contain unpleasant surprises. Advocates for the poor, for example, fret that the departure of Sten — an outspoken champion of the dispossessed — may leave funding for homeless and low-income housing programs vulnerable to raids from other bureaus. “I believe the city, and Mayor Potter in particular, has a strong commitment to low-income programs,” says Jean DeMaster of Human Solutions, a social-service agency serving east Portland. “But I’m worried that other priorities could creep in.” Indeed, preliminary budget proposals for the Bureau of Housing and Community Development do show reductions in rental assistance and work-force training. But those reductions reflect declining federal dollars, not cuts in city funding, according to Leonard. “We’ve had to cut back on some things,” he says. “As the economy has slowed, it is increasingly clear that the money is not available for everything we’d like to do.” Leonard steps into Sten role Nonetheless, Leonard said he was able to find other sources of money for homeless and housing programs, for example, by funneling the interest income from the city’s Housing Investment Fund to the Bureau of Housing, which focuses on helping low-income residents, and away from the Portland Development Commission, which is focused on real estate. The interest is approximately $500,000 a year, Leonard says. “If anyone sees a weakening resolve on homeless issues with Erik’s departure, I intend to make sure it gets filled,” he says. The anxiety and the last-minute lobbying are a time-honored part of the budget process, says Brendan Finn, chief of staff to Commissioner Dan Saltzman. “My phone has been ringing all week,” he says, with calls from advocates of all stripes — particularly parents who hope the city will maintain funding for sports and teenage programs offered through Portland Parks and Recreation. “These are good programs that keep kids off the streets and out of trouble,” Finn says. “But it’s difficult when you have to weigh that against public safety. It’s a tough predicament. The mayor will announce his budget at a news conference at 11 a.m. Tuesday at City Hall. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.