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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

City Budget Deficit, as Expected, Will Hit $25 Million

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Dec 5, 2012 at 2:14 PM

Portland's Office of Management and Finance has marked, in bright red ink, the terrible chunk of money that Mayor-elect Charlie Hales and the next city council must whack from the city's budget next spring: $25 million.

That number, long expected and roughly floated in other forums, was floated in the city's latest five-year financial forecast, presented to the current city council this afternoon. It means another year of pain. Based on current spending, according that forecast, bureaus will need to reduce spending by 6.5 percent—a number that could grow for some offices if Hales, like Adams, also makes it his policy to spare the city's public safety bureaus from deep cuts.

Also key: OMF is allowing for absolutely no more one-time funding for programs over the next five years. That writing has also been on the wall for some time. Historically, the council has used that one-time cash to string along programs that, in all honesty, are permanent—a cheat called the city's "shadow budget."

Why so grim? For now, it's not the economy's fault, although if growth sputters back into recession, things could always get worse.

This deficit, instead, is largely the product of "non-economic" factors: Tax compression thanks to the new library district ($10 million); the council's decision last year to make permanent some one-time programs, like housing and business-development ($8.6 million); and the federal police reform settlement imposed by the US Department of Justice ($5.4 million). City bureaus, after years of cuts, also are using up more of their allotted budgets, leaving millions less to roll over.

"We probably shouldn't think the economy can save us," city economist Josh Harwood testified, noting the city is "expecting growth," and that the cuts aren't "a function of a depressed economy."

Things could brighten a bit once the city inks legal agreements with Multnomah County over Sellwood Bridge spending mean to soften, at least for a few years, the effect of the library district. Mayor Sam Adams also got the council last week to approve a telecommunications tax plan that could raise up to $5 million a year for police reforms—but that money is already included in this forecast, at the low end of the mayor's estimates: $3 million.

Planners, in the forecast, also took note of another potential threat to the city's finances: generous labor contracts. All but one city union contract is up for renewal next year, and labor leaders won't like what OMF had to say.

In the forecast, OMF invoked the $7 million unions received during the last round of negotiations in 2010—most of which went to the Portland Police Association to buy off some modest policy concessions—and urged the council to keep costs no higher than what's required for cost-of-living adjustments. Or, maybe, seek out some concessions.

Most major city unions backed Jefferson Smith until his campaign imploded but have lately been cutting checks to Hales, as WW has reported this week. Either way, it's going to be a rough year around the bargaining table.

"These are non-economic factors and somewhat unforeseeable," Commissioner Nick Fish said about the spending cuts. "But that's the hand we're dealt."

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