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Flush with cash, Portland OKs city budget with little debate

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Turns out it’s easier for Portland city leaders to approve a budget when new money is flowing in.

With a minimum of bickering, Portland city commissioners unanimously approved a $3.68 billion city budget Wednesday afternoon for 2015-2016. It helped that they had nearly $50 million in additional cash to spend this year.

Mayor Charlie Hales dubbed it his “fix the roof” budget, because much of the new cash went into fixing roads, parks and other deferred maintenance, rather than splashy new programs.

City commissioners still hold out hopes they can win public support for a new fee or tax to pay for road safety and maintenance later this so year. So they quickly — some would say prudently — agreed to spend the largest share of the new money on roads, including major improvements to !22nd Avenue in East Portland. There’s a heavy concentration of apartments along 122nd, and the improvements are expected to pave the way for Trimet to start frequent bus service there.

“We are continuing to invest in parts of the city that have been lacking in services,” said City Commissioner Amanda Fritz. She was alluding to residential developments approved in East Portland, before it was within city limits, without requiring basic roads, sidewalks, sewers and parks. “We’re not done yet,” Fritz quickly added.

The City Council more than doubled the amount of transportation funding that comes from the city’s discretionary general fund, from the current $12 million up to $29 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation, said that was the largest such allocation in more than three decades.

In addition, some long-neglected parks facilities got funded, as well as a new computer server for the city’s 911 center.

The other big allocation was nearly $6 million for affordable housing and homeless programs. Commissioner Nick Fish called that a “substantial down payment” on the city’s shortfall of affordable housing, but said much more is needed in coming years.

City commissioners made several relatively minor changes Wednesday to the budget Hales proposed on May 5, some of them in response to public outcries over items Hales didn’t initially want to fund. Commissioners added an additional $250,000 for the Safe Routes to School program, bumping that up to the full amount that advocates wanted. They also restored $30,000 for the day labor center in inner Southeast Portland, formally known as the MLK Jr. Worker Center.

Some parks and road projects were shifted from bureau budgets to the Portland Development Commission, which will use urban renewal funds to pay for them. That freed up money in the city general fund to provide $500,000 for a PDC business startup fund and $891,000 for a PDC-run community development fund.

The budget approved Wednesday also included:

•$2.6 million to plan renovations to the Portland Building, where hundreds of city employees work

•$1.9 million to do marketing and other support for the 2016 Indoor Track and Field championships, planned at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland

•$1.4 million to retain 26 imperiled firefighter positions

•$500,000 for a psychiatric emergency services center

•More than $1 million in seed money to pave more of Portland’s dirt roads, known as the Out of the Mud program

•$2 million to expand recreational center programs and access to the centers for teens, particularly in gang-affected neighborhoods

•$900,000 to fulfill Hales’ pledge to boost city employees’ minimum wage to $15 an hour

Much of the increased spending was made possible by growing city proceeds for business taxes and lodging taxes, which Hales said was a sign that businesses are making higher profits in Portland. “We have a responsibility to keep that good economy going,” he said.

The only hint of discord among the five city commissioners Wednesday was over the track and field competition subsidies. Fritz promised to introduce a measure that could shift that funding burden from the city to Travel Portland, which ordinarily pays for tourism and visitor promotion efforts. That’s likely to come before city commissioners June 18, when they are slated to give their final formal approval of the 2015-16 budget.

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Budget numbers at a glance

• Total Portland city budget for 2015-16: $3.68 billion

• Actual spending, once double-counted funds are deducted: $2.88 billion

• General fund (discretionary) spending: $489.6 million

• Added city positions funded: the equivalent of 130 fulltime employees

• Rate increase for city water customers: 7 percent

• Rate increase for city sewer, storm drainage customers: 3.6 percent