City brings budget session to outer East Portland

Instead of just complaining about how City government may be wasting their tax dollars, see why about 100 people spent a Saturday morning talking turkey – and, what the Commissioners say they learned from the session, as they start making difficult decisions …

Andrew Scott, Budget Director with City of Portland’s Office of Budget & Finance, thanks citizens meeting at Floyd Light Middle School for their comments on the City’s budget.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The Portland City Budget Forum held at Floyd Light Middle School on February 21 was different – and better – than similar sessions in past years, according to both the participants and the leaders who attended the four-hour meeting.

In the past, we’ve seen the halls filled with individuals representing narrow interest groups monopolizing the time and attention of the Portland City Commissioners and bureau chiefs as they advocated funding for their own programs’ needs.

Discussions and roundtables
At this City Budget Forum, citizens were quizzed using a hand-held, remote-control “clicker” – and the result of each vote was instantly displayed.

Folks sat down at a table to learn more about – and comment on – Portland bureaus and their budgets, then moved on to a second table.

Attendees were invited to talk with bureau representatives to learn more about the City’s main areas of service. Each service hosted a table; neighbors chose what each considered their two most important services areas’ tables at which to meet. Those tables were labeled:

  • Culture & Arts
  • Development Services & Permitting
  • Fire & Rescue, Emergency Communication (9-1-1) and Emergency Management
  • Housing
  • Neighborhood Involvement, including Human Relations & Cable Access
  • Parks & Recreation
  • Planning & Sustainability
  • Police
  • Public Utilities (Sewer & Water services)
  • Transportation.

Portland City Commissioners Randy Leonard, Nick Fish, and Amanda Fritz, along with Mayor Sam Adams, drifted among the tables, listening to comments made by participants, as they learned more about the programs operated by the bureaus, budgets, core missions, and community-need priority rankings.

After the visitations, representatives from each table summarized the top ideas and concerns that came from the discussions held there.

Dorothy Teeple votes her preferences using a “clicker” provided to each of the participants.

Voting results displayed instantaneously
Again, using their voting “clickers”, the participants anonymously recorded their demographic information:

  • 70% were female and more than half 55 years of age and older;
  • More than two-thirds were long-time Portland residents, living here 11 years or more; and,
  • 72% were homeowners, and had obtained some advanced education.

We were encouraged to note that most of the participants did live in East Portland.

Most of the participants indicated that they thought their neighborhood – and the City of Portland in general – is a good place to live.

Asked for their opinion about “things in Portland” – 55% voted “Going in the Right Direction”, 17% indicated “On the Wrong Track” and 27% punched in “Not Sure”.

After each “vote”, the tabulated results for each question instantly shows up as a video projected slide, like this one.

When asked to name the single most important need in their neighborhood, the top three issues selected were:

  • 18% voted to “Maintain neighborhood police patrols”;
  • 18% voted to “Preserve recreation programs”; and,
  • 17% voted to “Ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing”.

Commissioners’ comments
After it concluded, we asked each of the Portland City Commissioners what they’d learned from the Budget Forum.

In addition to monitoring the formal proceeding, Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard listens to the concerns of a constituent.

“Today, I learned that people care a lot about city services,” said Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard. They care a lot about fire, police, and parks. We need to figure out a way to minimize impacts to the budgets for these bureaus.”

We asked Leonard, “Are these Budget Forums you’re holding around the city ‘window dressing’, or the real deal?”

Leonard replied, “This is real input; it’s the most important we get. Instead of hearing one group after another get up to testify about a special interest, with this method I get to go around, talk to people, and really hear what they think.”

Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz thanks participants, saying “Please continue to engage; we have some very difficult choices, in many ways no good choices to be made, in this current budget cycle.”

Portland’s freshman City Commissioner, Amanda Fritz, said she thought this kind of Budget Forum is the “real deal” in that “it helps us get a sense of community priorities”.

The commissioners have more input when it comes to the writing the questions asked of citizens, she opined. “But this is really helpful information. Even so, I think we can do better still, next year,” Fritz told us. “But the conversation really needs to start in July. Many of the bureaus have done an excellent job of including citizens throughout this process.”

We observed that Fritz had now gone from being a citizen and activist to being on “the other side”, and asked her to comment.

“The past 17 years I’ve come to budget forums, and organized citizens to come and lobby for various issues,” Fritz responded. “I’ve taught people how to ‘work the processes’. You now have someone in City Council who understands how the game is played – and how I feel it should be less of a game and more of a constructive exercise. I think we’ve made a very good start on that this year.”

Asked what she sees as the best hope for coming up with a satisfactory budget, Fritz said, “In all of the questions asked, there was nothing in there about the value of building community. I think [building community] is necessary to get us through this crisis – people stepping out to cover the gaps that are left when government cannot fund as much. That’s going to get us through this.”

Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish, hears the concerns of a neighbor at the forum.

“To me, this is hugely helpful,” began Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish. “I’ll tell you why this Budget Forum is good. We get very constructive feedback on budget priorities. I’ve already gotten some ideas on how we can do some of the budget differently.”

Fish gave an example regarding senior recreation programs. “Many older adults have asked us not to cut senior programs. But one senior said we might consider raising certain [participant] fees a little, to keep from having to cut other programs all together.”

His response to the attendees: “Your time is very precious. Thank you for giving up a Saturday morning for helping us to do our job.  The feedback we’ve gotten from you will help us make smarter decisions.  So thank you.”

Portland Mayor Sam Adams thanks participants for spending their Saturday morning at the Budget Forum.

The Budget Forum process is “really helpful”, Mayor Sam Adams said.

“At this point in the process, there been no decisions made by counsel on what to say or what to cut. But, we have to make cuts. The input that we get from this Budget Forum, from East Portland people, is vital in helping us determine how to prioritize our budget.”

One thing that struck him, Adams said, was the need he’s seen expressed to maintain programs and services for the most vulnerable populations, such as seniors. “Those are, frankly, easy areas to cut, unless people turn out and say how these programs are a key part of their quality of life. We heard them loud and clear.”

The Portland City Budget process will continue through out the spring; the City’s fiscal year ends June 30.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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