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Potter budget anticipates leaner times

Housing, sustainable programs cut as mayor urges spending restraint
by: JIM CLARK, Some programs for the homeless took a hit under the new budget proposal from Mayor Tom Potter unveiled Wednesday.

Portland Mayor Tom Potter unveiled a $3.1 billion budget proposal Tuesday, emphasizing basic services and eschewing pet projects amid a dwindling city surplus caused by the current economic downturn. While Potter avoided drastic surgery to the city’s spending, he also issued a stark warning that the glorious era of municipal excess is rapidly drawing to a close. “Time is running out,” Potter declared at a news conference held in City Council chambers, sounding for all the world like an Old Testament prophet, his neatly trimmed goatee notwithstanding. “We should not create false hopes by treating one-time money as though it will always be available.” In crafting his final budget, Potter trimmed spending on housing and homeless programs. Among other things, he cut $1.7 million from the Bureau of Housing and Community Development, including $500,000 in affordable housing, $500,000 to help low-income residents buy their own homes, and $236,000 for Project Homeless Connect, aimed at helping homeless people access the array of resources available to them. Advocates for the homeless had feared such cuts because of the early retirement this month of their champion on the council, Commissioner Erik Sten. But housing bureau Director Will White sounded moderately relieved that they were not larger. “We did very well compared to a lot of other bureaus,” White said. Some political observers believe Sten’s departure could complicate efforts to restore any cuts by the remaining council members. Over the past several years, the council has tended to divide into two unequal blocs: Potter and Commissioner Dan Saltzman on one hand, and commissioners Sten, Randy Leonard and Sam Adams on the other. This split produced 3-2 votes on several crucial issues, including Portland Development Commission reforms. Sten’s departure April 4 raises the specter of frequent 2-2 stalemates. “It’s harder to get to three votes when you’ve only got four councilors to go to,” one City Hall insider said. Publicly, council members downplay the likelihood of deadlock. “I think we can work through it,” Leonard said. Saltzman even thinks that fewer members on the council will simplify the process. “I think it enhances the chance of agreement,” he said. “There are fewer opportunities for machinations, and for grand conspiracies.” A final wild card is the primary election scheduled for May 20, when city voters will go to the polls to elect a successor to Sten. If any candidate wins an outright majority in the primary, it is conceivable the results could be certified in time to allow him or her to be seated on the council before the final budget vote, which takes place June 19. That throws open the possibility that the new council member could wield enormous influence over the final budget. Potter’s proposed budget also rejected requests for various cultural programs, including the Portland Art Museum and the Portland Children’s Museum, focusing instead on paving Northeast Cully Boulevard and replacing the radio system used by police, fire and emergency workers. He also pared the Office of Sustainable Development, the city agency leading the efforts against climate change. Potter urged his colleagues to not only be cautious when approving the budget that takes effect July 1, he pleaded with them to forgo some of their cherished projects during the fall annual budget monitoring process, known within City Hall as the fall “bump.” Instead, he urged them to set up a rainy-day fund to cushion the city against future downturns. “In Portland, of all places, we should save for a rainy day,” Potter said. Thanks to the relatively prosperous local economy, the city’s budget over the past few years has become increasingly reliant on what are called “one-time only” funds — that is, surplus money the city has available at a particular moment, but which is not built into the budget on a long-term basis. Currently, the city enjoys a surplus of $37 million, but that is projected to fall to $33 million in the coming budget and $5 million the fiscal year after that. Programs funded by one-time-only funds are therefore vulnerable to economic swings — and to bureaucratic competition. City agencies and commissioners submitted to Potter a total of $117 million in requests for the shrinking pile of one-time cash, of which he approved only $33 million. The vast majority of the city’s budget is not actually under the council’s discretion, because it is variously composed of debt obligations, federal grants, inter-agency agreements, urban renewal funds, and a host of other bureaucratic silos. The part of the budget that receives the most attention — and the part everybody fights over — is the discretionary portion of the general fund, pegged at $388 million for next year. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.