Is citys mission getting too big?
Auditor wonders if social services can be sustained
When Portland Mayor Sam Adams unveiled his proposed budget in early May, he spent much of the time talking about funding programs to help those hit hardest by the recession.
'Our boom-bust economy, our decades-long achievement gap, the root causes of crime, and the lack of basic equity for all Portlanders - all are issues we must address to achieve permanent resilience,' Adams said at the May 3 press conference where he outlined the $408 million general fund budget he is presenting to the City Council for the next fiscal year.
Among other things, Adams is asking the council to spend $4.2 million for housing, $600,000 for the operation of a joint Portland-Multnomah County Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center, more than $3 million for addiction and mental health services and more than $1 million for the creation of a new Office of Equity.
Although Adams said the programs were especially important because of the poor economy, at least some of the spending runs counter to a 28-year-old agreement between Portland and Multnomah County regarding which services each government should provide. Commonly called Resolution A, the agreement essentially calls for the cities within Multnomah County to provide urban services such as sewers, police and parks, and for the county to provide social services.
City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade is concerned that Portland has disregarded the agreement for many years, spending an ever-increasing amount of general fund dollars for services the county is obligated to provide. She says the issue is surfacing in an audit being conducted on the fiscal sustainability of the city.
'We are wondering how to measure the long-term financial health of the city if it keeps adding services,' she says.
At the very least, Griffin-Valade says the city and county should formally re-evaluate Resolution A and decide officially whether to continue, repeal or modify the arrangement.
'It just makes sense to revisit an agreement that's almost 30 years old,' she says.
No need to reconsider?
There is no consensus, however, among Portland or Multnomah County commissioners about the need to formally reconsider a resolution that's no longer being strictly followed.
Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen is open to such a conversation, especially if it results in services being delivered more efficiently to the people who need them.
'The bottom line is, we must make sure we deliver critical services,' Cogen says.
Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz does not think this is the right time for such a conversation.
'People are so stressed because of the economy, they just don't have time for esoteric questions,' says Fritz, expressing the majority opinion.
But that position is a complete reversal for Fritz. She called for the city and county to adhere to the agreement before she was elected to the council. Writing about the growing disregard for the agreement on her personal website on May 11, 2007, Fritz said, 'I believe Resolution A should continue to be honored and built upon as a cornerstone of city-county structure and division of responsibility.'
Since joining the council in 2009, Fritz says she has come to realize it is important for the city and county to meet the needs of all residents, regardless of who pays for what service.
'The recession has really changed a lot people's attitudes about how we fund these programs,' Fritz says.
Adams says he has proposed ways the county could divert money to social service programs. Among other things, since becoming mayor, he has proposed having the city take over the county-owned bridges across the Willamette River and the river patrol duties of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. Neither has gone anywhere, yet.
'We need the county to succeed in its core mission,' Adams says.
City grows its social programs
When Multnomah County commissioners adopted Resolution A in March 1983, their action was matched by the Portland City Council, which adopted an urban services policy. The split between urban services and rural and social services was then implemented though a series of intergovernmental agreements involving Portland, Multnomah County and other jurisdictions, including Gresham.
In the early years, the agreements shaped major public policy changes within the region. Among other things, both Portland and Gresham annexed large unincorporated portions of the county, increasing their tax bases but also committing to provide sewers, parks and police patrols.
Twenty-eight years ago, the county supported the agreements in large part because it was facing an estimated $14 million general fund shortfall in its 1982-83 budget. For a while, it appeared that the shift was working to the county's advantage.
But as demands for social services increased in subsequent years, the county's financial situation once again grew perilous. At the same time, Portland began generating surpluses. Eventually, the city started paying for social programs. For example, while the county continued providing services for homeless families, the city began funding them for homeless men.
Then, in 2002, the council asked Portland voters to create and fund a new social service program, the Children's Investment Fund. Approved by voters in the November election and renewed in 2008, it generates more than $12 million a year in property tax dollars that are distributed to nonprofit organizations serving needy children.
The fund is the brainchild of City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who had served on the Multnomah County board of commissioners after Resolution A was approved. Saltzman admits he never supported such a strict division of services. Instead, he believes every government needs to do whatever it can to help those in the need.
'I'm the greatest objector (to Resolution A),' he says.
Following the Childen's Levy, the council began funding even more county services, including jail beds for known drug abusers arrested for crimes and the Hooper sobering station. The city also has agreed to help renovate the sobering center into the more comprehensive Portland-Multnomah County Crisis Assessment and Treatment Center that Adams is proposing to support in next year's budget. It recently partnered with the county to open the Gateway Center for Domestic Violence Services.
Commissioner Nick Fish is comfortable with such agreements. Fish says he and Multnomah County Commissioner Debra Kafoury have spent months dividing up housing services between city and county agencies to improve their delivery.
City may provide more to county
Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade says she first became aware of Resolution A in 1998 when she began working in the Multnomah County Auditor's Office.
'The first audit I worked on was an audit of human services contracting in the county, which was the direct result of Resolution A. Even then, it was apparent the city and county weren't completely following the agreement, and everyone knew it,' she says.
After she was elected county auditor in 2006, Griffin-Valade began expressing her concerns about the disregard for Resolution A to the county chair and commissioners.
'Everyone agreed we should talk about it, but it never happened,' she said.
Griffin-Valade resigned from the county to run for city auditor in 2009 after Gary Blackmer left to become director of the state audits division. Since winning office, she has become even more concerned about the drift away from the agreement, noting that the City Council has opened the door to supporting a wide range of county programs if they run low on money.
The county is much more dependent on state and federal funds than the city. Cogen expects the Legislature and Congress to cut money they have been sending the county, but he does not know by how much.
'We may be asking the city for more money. It all depends on how bad it gets,' says county spokesman David Austin.
Fritz agrees the council may have to provide even more money to the county if that happens. But she still does not see the need to reopen Resolution A, saying no written agreement can adequately determine what services should and should not be funded in such a crisis.
'The decisions will be made by the 10 intelligent people serving on the council and commission,' she says.