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Regional Interests

Portland officials raising a few concerns about mayor’s budget proposal

City African American Network

Portland City Council members and the public have now had a week to pore through Mayor Ted Wheeler’s $5.7 billion — and nearly 400-page — budget.

Compared with last year’s tumultuous budget process, this one feels relatively less contentious. Wheeler’s budget provides millions in funding for economic recovery initiatives, trash removal, and efforts to stem the city’s homelessness crisis. And, so far, the city’s elected officials have only disagreed publicly with the mayor on a few points.

Here are three of the most notable:

The biggest clash brewing between council members is around how quickly to scale-up the Portland Street Response, a new city program that dispatches a non-police response to 911 calls regarding people experiencing homelessness or in a mental health crisis.

The mayor now says he wants to hold off on giving the program enough funding to go citywide.

The decision took the office of Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who has spearheaded the program within the city, by surprise. In January, Wheeler had asked Hardesty to “move more quickly toward implementation.”

The mayor’s budget touts fully funding the pilot, allocating nearly $1 million for the initial phase. Currently, the program is limited to one team in Portland’s Lents neighborhood. Another team is expected to begin in August that will also work nights and weekends.

But the fire bureau, which houses the program, had asked for an additional $3.6 million in this budget cycle to support the program going citywide over the coming year with six teams. The bureau was expecting to start rolling out citywide in March of 2022.

According to the mayor’s budget, the decision on whether to scale up will hinge on how successful the pilot is. The budget directs the program managers to report back to council at the six-month and one-year mark on its performance. The decision aligns with recommendations made by Chief Administrative Officer Tom Rinehart.

The mayor’s decision has aggravated some who say now is not the time to hold off on police alternatives. Over 20 people testified in a budget hearing Wednesday night against his funding proposal, many mentioning the shooting of Robert Delgado, who was fatally shot by police in Lents Park last month in the midst of what appeared to be a mental health crisis. The Portland Street Response operates in that area, but was not called during the incident.

“We want alternatives to policing and systems of incarceration for community members who are unhoused and unwell as evidenced by the recent police killing of Robert Delgado Jr.,” said Dana Buhl, the director of social justice at the First Unitarian Church of Portland. “The sooner we implement the crisis intervention system staffed by people more skilled in addressing mental health crises the better.”

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer also weighed in on Twitter this week urging the council to fully fund the program.

Hardesty’s office plans to introduce an amendment to make the full $3.6 million available. The Oregonian reported Commissioner Dan Ryan is set to be the deciding vote with Commissioner Mingus Mapps siding with Wheeler and Commissioner Carmen Rubio with Hardesty.

A smaller dispute is brewing over how to support the city’s Black employees.

Wheeler’s budget directs the head of the city’s human resources department to craft a program to improve “recruitment, retention, and promotion” of Black employees. It also puts $125,000 to support employee affinity groups.

The funding follows a report issued in March by the City African American Network, a volunteer group for Black city employees. The report included several starling statistics — including that the city has lost 40% of its Black employees since 2019.

The report found the number of Black employees working for the city had fallen from 793 in 2019 to 456 in 2021. Black employees now make up 6.7% of the workforce, compared to 7.7% in 2019.

The report notes there has also been a significant drop in white employees. But their overall percentage of the city workforce increased from 72.1% to 73.5%

One possible reason for the loss of Black staff? According to a survey conducted by the group, many Black staff members reported feeling “undervalued, overburdened, underrepresented, and sometimes unsafe.” The report added that the majority of Black staff are placed into support roles, such as administrative workers, technicians or service and maintenance workers.

In a recent letter, the network’s leadership called on the mayor to provide more support for Black employees.

“With the Mayor’s talk of it being time for a change, the City’s Black employees hope that it goes beyond rhetoric,” the letter stated.

In a council session Tuesday, Hardesty said she was concerned the mayor’s proposals weren’t properly suited to the problems raised in the report by Black employees.

“It looks like their voices are being minimized in this process,” she said. “I do not believe that this would be the solution to that problem, but I don’t know because we haven’t talked directly to the Black employees that have been most impacted.”

Hardesty said she wanted to hear from the employees who created the report about how to create a safer work environment within the city.

Since it became clear that a new voter-approved police oversight board would replace the current form of civilian oversight, Auditor Mary Hull Caballero has been clear: she wants to find a way to ensure employees at the Independent Police Review stick around.

Earlier this year, Hull Caballero proposed a firm end date for IPR: June 30, 2022. After that, employees would be able to move into a new division she wanted to create that would evaluate the city’s policy and programs and investigate complaints across all city bureaus.

Hull Caballero pushed to get the mayor to include the new office in the upcoming budget. He did not.

Instead, the mayor wrote a vaguely worded budget note saying the council and auditor had “agreed that the Auditor’s Office will continue to fully staff and preserve the critical services of the Independent Police Review” until the new police oversight board is operational.

The city needs the police review board to stay functional until the oversight board is off the ground. As part of the city’s settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, Portland is required to have an oversight system that responds to complaints of officer misconduct.

Hull Caballero said no such agreement has been reached with the mayor’s office.

“The mayor’s budget note does not portray my position accurately,” she said. “It says that we’ve reached an agreement on certain things, and we have not.”

Hull Caballero has crafted her own language she wants the mayor to put into the budget, effectively a watered down version of her original plan that would promise staff a future role doing “accountability and transparency work” within the Auditor’s Office.

Hull Caballero is also pushing for a second change that would create a new funding model for her office — the model would cap how much the auditor could spend and leave decision-making on what to do with the money to her.

The council had questions about the proposal Tuesday. But Hull Caballero wasn’t there. She said she wasn’t invited — but, even if she had been, she said she wasn’t sure she’d go.

After a budget session in March where Hardesty castigated Hull Caballero for her proposals, the auditor said she was no longer willing to appear in front of council or bring her employees.

“How do I force my employees to go into that chamber when we see the conduct that occurs there?” she said. “It’s disturbing to watch what occurs.”

She said, for the most part, she’s sticking to it and has already declined to attend two events including a quarterly report to council on city audits. She’s waiting for the council to present her with “rules of engagement.”

“They have lots of rules for people that appear before me,” she said. “I don’t understand why the same rules don’t apply for the commissioners.”

The city will host another budget hearing on May 13.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting