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Audit: City has not defined core services

The City Council has not defined Portland government’s core services well enough to make logical budgeting decision, according to an audit released Tuesday.

The issue is especially important because the council faces a $25 million general fund shortfall in next year's budget.

"With the budget concerns, the council really does not have a lot of formal direction about where to spend its existing resources," says city Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade.

The audit began as a review of division of responsibilities adopted by the council and the Multnomah County Commission in 1983. Known as Resolution A, it called for the city to focus on urban services such as policing and transportation, and for the county to focus on social services.

The audit found the agreement has grown increasingly outdated over the past 30 years as both the city and county adopted new programs and policies.

"The agreement never articulated as much as people thought it did, but a lot has changed since 1983, making it even more obsolete," says Griffin-Valade.

But more than that, the audit found the council has not defined the city’s core services well enough to provide a viable alternative to Resolution A. Although city officials generally agree that core services include police, fire, water, sewer and transportation, that is not spelled out in the city charter or any other city document. Instead, numerous documents, including the Portland Plan approved by the council last year, lay out far broader goals.

“The city mission and goals in the budget are so broad as to cover all livability issues, and they provide little help in setting spending priorities among competing goals and with limited resources,” according to the audit.

Auditors wrote that a lack of specificity is especially important now.

“During difficult economic times, city leaders may decide to reduce or even eliminate funding to programs that are possibly outside the city’s primary responsibilities or which may be better provided and financed by another government,” according to the audit. “But to focus its limited funding on core services, council must first identify those core services.”

The audit points to the need for the city and county to develop a new division of services that “reflects modern government activities and public expectations, building on the expertise and funding capacity of each and clearly identifying roles and responsibilities.” Auditors requested that Mayor Charlie Hales provide a status report in a year on steps taken to implement the audit’s recommendations.

In his written response to the audit, Hales agreed with the findings and recommendations.

“As good stewards of the public’s money, we must prioritize programs — funding our most basic obligations and highest priorities first,” Hales wrote.

The audit can be found at bit.ly/14aEkEU