City bureau managers get direct neighbor input at East Portland ‘Budget Forum’

Curious about the “Fiscal State of the City”? You’ll find a good summary here. And, see why officials say this community meeting, held in outer East Portland, offered residents to give genuine input, instead of merely choosing from preset alternatives …

At the “Community Fair” before the forum, Christine Nguyen tells about the non-profit organization for which she is a program coordinator, the “Cinderella Program” – part of Oregon Mentors.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Even though most people roll their eyes when asked how – or if – they’ve prepared a family budget, creating a budget for the whole City of Portland is one of our City government’s most important processes.

This year, the City produced two Community Budget Forums – one at Wilson High School on the west side—and an east side edition at David Douglas High School, postponed (by late February’s predicted-but-didn’t-come snow storm) to the second week of March.

Here, welcoming attendees is the event’s coordinator, Kelly Ball, from the City of Portland’s Office of Management and Finance.

“This is an opportunity for folks to come and tell their budget priorities to the decision-makers,” said the event’s coordinator, Kelly Ball, Communications Manager, Office of Management and Finance, City of Portland.

“This is their opportunity to share their thoughts with the Mayor, members of the Portland City Council and bureau chiefs.”

We asked if this budget forum was like others we’ve attended, at which people take “multiple-choice tests” concerning specific budget items – instead of being able to give input on items meaningful to them.

“Tonight people will have an opportunity to share their top priority,” Ball responded. “Everyone comes here for a reason – they want to share budget priorities. Tonight, they will have an opportunity to share their top priority; we will capture those comments.”

The City’s head of Financial Planning, Andrew Scott, says people who come to the budget forums really can be heard by the City’s leaders – and bureau chiefs.

The City of Portland Bureau of Financial Services Financial Planning Division manager, Andrew Scott, added, “City bureaus submitted their budgets at the end of January; we are reviewing those. We are doing these budget forums to get information from citizens that will be used by City Counsel in a series of work sessions in March and early April, relating to every bureau’s budget, priorities, and issues.”

“Will participating in this forum really make a difference?” we ask.

“[City leaders] definitely pay attention, both at these budget forums, and at the budget hearings in May where people can get up and give their three minutes of testimony,” replied Scott. “Counsel listens to the testimony, and reviews the compiled comments. I think it does make a difference. A lot of bureau directors come [to these forums] so they can directly talk with people, answer questions, and hear their requests.”

Portland Mayor Sam Adams welcomes participants to the 2011 Portland Budget Forum at David Douglas High School.

In his opening remarks, Portland Mayor Sam Adams greeted attendees, “We’re here to determine what priorities we are to focus on, as we look to putting together the next budget for the fiscal year 2011-12. This is our rescheduled budget forum; the first one was snowed out by the ‘major blizzard’ that didn’t happen.”

Adams quipped, “Forecasting budgets and forecasting blizzards are increasingly difficult these days.”

Portland City Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Randy Leonard greet the forum attendees.

Although Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman was excused on account of illness, compatriots Amanda Fritz and Randy Leonard were on hand to represent the bureaus they oversee.

“I’m told that Commissioner Nick Fish is on his way,” Adams informed the audience. “It seems he’s still trying to locate the forum, here on the David Douglas High School campus.”

City of Portland bureau directors introduce themselves – and successfully resist the urge to present a chorus-line dance number.

Asking the City of Portland department heads to come forward, Adams joshed, “Our bureau managers also have prepared an interpretive dance number for you. No, I’m just kidding.”

The some 50 folks at the forum heard that the City operates with a $3.5 billion annual budget.

Andrew Scott told the audience that their participation is very important, and added, “Allow me to talk briefly review our City’s budget process, and talk about these maps in the front of the room.”

The City’s budget expert, Andrew Scott, says that Portland’s current fiscal health is better than some other municipalities in the region.

City Budget 101
In terms of the overall economic picture, Scott said his department issues a financial forecast in December. “We will update it when the Mayor produces his proposed budget in April. There are some positive signs in the economy, but not as large as many would like to see.

“The unemployment rate in Portland, in December of 2010, reached a post-recession ‘low’ of 9.2%,” Scott pointed out, as are building permits – still about 75% below 2007 levels. “Overall, within that context, the City is doing relatively well financially, compared to surrounding jurisdictions, and the state.  But we’re not seeing the rebounding and we’d like to see at this point.”

The City ended the year last year with a $10 million one-time surplus. “We’re projecting at the beginning of next year we’ll have a $22 million one-time surplus,” stated Scott.  “We also have some ongoing costs that are increasing.”

The maps on display show how funds have been geographically allocated, Andrew Scott says.

City mapping project sheds light on geographical parity
Along the length of the North Cafeteria’s stage were taped a series of colorful maps, to which Scott pointed.

“The maps that you see behind me come from a project started about a year ago,” Scott explained. “The Mayor asked us to start looking at whether we can map all City revenues and expenditures. The idea was to look at spending in a way that we never had before, and provide a ‘lens’ through which the Mayor and the Council can understand the distribution of revenue and spending throughout the City of Portland.”

This photo reduction of the “Annexation Map” shows when each area of Multnomah County was annexed into the City.

> To see all of the maps prepared so far, and a guide to interpreting them, CLICK HERE to open the City of Portland’s website index page.

“We found out that no one has done this kind of mapping that the Mayor has asked us to do,” continued Scott. “After working on it, we understand why: It is extremely complex, involves a lot of the acquisition of data, and also the analysis of data and the weighting of data, so it is accurately portrayed on the maps.”

This is just half of one of two outer East Portland groups sharing their concerns about the City’s budget priorities.

After detailing the information contained on the displayed maps, the participants were asked to break into work sessions, dividing themselves into geographically-represented groups. The outer East Portland group grew so big, it was split into two groups!

Problems and items of interest, stated by participants, included:

  • Potholes that need filling;
  • Lack of grocery and shopping choices in areas of outer East Portland;
  • Crime and public safety issues – specifically not reducing the Portland Police Bureau budget;
  • Lack of major employers /jobs in the area.

Overall, attendees learned that it is proposed that public safety bureaus face cuts of 0.75% and non-public safety bureaus cut 1.5% from their budgets.

Then, the groups of attendees were asked specifically to comment on the City’s “service areas”:

  • Transportation – Traffic, Parking, Street Car, Road Maintenance
  • Public Safety – Police, Fire, Emergency Management & Communications
  • Parks, Recreation & Culture – Parks & Recreation, Golf, Portland International Raceway
  • Public Utilities – Environmental Services (Sewer), Hydroelectric Power, Water
  • Community Development – Development Services and Permitting, Planning and Sustainability, Neighborhood Involvement, Housing, Cable
  • Legislative, Administrative & Support – Attorney, Auditor, Government Relations, Human Relations, Management & Finance

Taking obvious delight in the forum are David Douglas School District’s board member Frieda Christopher and superintendant Don Grotting; Arlene Kimura, Chair of the Hazelwood Neighborhood Association; and Deborah Higa from Steps to Success at Mt. Hood Community College.

How to become involved
Into April, Mayor Adams’ staff will develop a proposed City budget and discuss it with the City’s Financial Planning office, bureau directors, and commissioners.

  • When the draft budget is released, you’ll be able to give online testimony.
  • During May and June, you can attend one of the community hearings on the proposed budget, as the Portland City Council goes through its hearing and budget approval process.
  • The budget is to be adopted by the Portland City Council in late June.

To keep up with the process, visit the City’s official budget website: CLICK HERE.

At last, Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish finds his way into the forum and checks in with Mayor Adams.

© 2011 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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