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Friday, October 19, 2012

Fritz Wants to Pry More Budget Power from Mayor's Claws

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Fri, Oct 19, 2012 at 9:08 AM

Hoping to loosen the mayor's traditional vise grip on the city budget—while also raising alarms over a little-seen pot of city cash worth nearly half a billion bucks—City Commissioner Amanda Fritz is prepared to push a significant restructuring of Portland's financial apparatus.

Fritz, according to copies of a proposed ordinance (pdf) and other documents (pdf) obtained by the Mercury, wants to carve a separate, independent city budget office from the mayor's traditional budget fiefdom: the Office of Management and Finance (OMF). The splinter City Budget Office would handle budget forecasts, labor-contract assessments, and financial planning. And it would be run by a director who could be appointed by the mayor but dismissed only by a majority of the city council.

It's the second time in just a little more than a month that a city commissioner has moved to sap some of the mayor's power over all things financial—one of the office's few real powers under the commission style of government. In September, Dan Saltzman won passage of a new rule forcing five-year forecasts to be published twice a year, on specific dates, after Mayor Sam Adams frustrated some of his colleagues by delaying the forecast's release this spring to avoid telegraphing his plans. Both appear enabled by the political limbo that's emerged as Mayor Sam Adams' influence inevitably wanes amid the impending mayoral election.

Fritz's ordinance, up for a hearing this Wednesday, is starkly clear about its intent:

With Portland’s unique commission form of government, each city commissioner has executive level management responsibilities as well as legislative responsibilities, which mandates the need for direct unfiltered communication with financial planning staff throughout the year and which would be provided by an independent budget office.... Every council member should have access to the information, advice, books and records of the City Budget Office.

There's another element in play—also stemming from this spring's budget and Mayor Adams' handling of it.

Fritz, in keeping with the fiscal hawk persona she's relying on to help fend off a re-election challenge from State Representative Mary Nolan, wants keener eyes trained on the many internal, back-office funds that OMF also manages.

OMF's operating budget, which helps pay for things like the city's insurance programs, human resources bureau, printing services, technical support, and vehicle fleet, amounts to $451 million. The worry is that OMF might have a conflict of interest between protecting its turf and fully performing its other job as tough-medicine financial doctor for the city. OMF's internal funds finally suffered some cuts this year—after years of generally avoiding scrutiny at the expense of front-line bureaus like Transportation and Parks.

In order to eliminate the possibility or appearance that the Financial Planning Division might not give the same thorough, impartial and critical examination of OMF’s budgets as it does to the budgets of other City bureaus, it is in the public interest to establish financial planning, forecasting, and budgeting functions in a separate City bureau, independent of any other City bureau.

How will this play with her colleagues? I can't say yet. But it's not all that often that controversial ordinances are made public without there being some sense of support. Especially when that ordinance dances on another city commissioner's turf. I'm supposed to be off today, but we'll try for some updates.

If it passes, Fritz would find herself with some more pretty good fodder for a campaign ad.

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