Turned Out Onto The Streets

From the Portland Mercury, March 19 2009

Turned Out onto the Streets – Portland’s Budget Crisis Will Impact Neediest

Statewide employment numbers released Monday, March 16, show Oregon’s unemployment rate at 10.8 percent, its worst since 1984. But forget the state at large: You won’t even have to leave Portland city limits to experience the recession in all its terrifying reality over the coming months.

The City of Portland is facing an $8.8 million cut to its general fund this year, or roughly 2.6 percent in cuts across the board. The police bureau plans to close North and Southeast Precincts to accommodate the cuts, while the fire bureau may have to close a station. The biggest cuts, however, will affect the city’s one-time funding allocations, which are usually taken from the city’s budget surplus. Citywide one-time funding will be reduced by almost 90 percent, from $24.9 million last year to a total of $2.5 million this year.

The one-time funding cuts hit some programs that have been controversial since their inception: The Office of Neighborhood Involvement stands to lose its mediation programs and half of its graffiti abatement program. The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability may lose $2.6 million in funding for projects like the Portland Plan and Vision into Action, while the Office of Human Relations may lose half the funding for its new Human Rights Commission.

Meanwhile, other one-time funding cuts could affect Portland’s most vulnerable when they need help most. Last year, for example, the Bureau of Housing relied on just over $6 million in one-time funding for services like homeless outreach, shelters for men and women, severe-weather shelters, and employment programs. This year, funding for those programs geared toward ending homelessness will be axed to just $2.5 million, unless council can find cash elsewhere.

“This is not the year to be cutting these programs,” says the city’s homeless program manager, Sally Erickson. “I know we have a lot of support from city council—we’re just hanging in there.”

Over the past week, representatives from each city bureau have lobbied council to preserve their programs at budget work sessions. Now, Mayor Sam Adams has to finalize his budget in consultation with the Office of Management and Finance and present the final cuts to council for approval in May.

“We have to make cuts, but I want to prioritize protecting services and programs that address the needs of those being hit hardest by this recession,” says Adams.

On the Multnomah County level, the budget is severely squeezed in two directions. County Chair Ted Wheeler has asked all departments to slash their budgets 12 percent to make up for plummeting tax revenues that have helped create a $36.5 million hole in the county’s general fund. But the state, which is facing a $3 billion budget hole of its own, is also planning to cut funding to many county programs significantly or entirely.

“We have cut our budget eight years in a row and we have cut to the bone. The cuts we’re making now are crazy if you’re looking out for the long-term health of the community,” says County Commissioner Jeff Cogen.

Just like the cuts at the city level, slashing budgets at the county level will hit Portland’s most vulnerable populations the hardest. The governor’s projected budget would axe funding for the Hooper Detox Center, which picks 11,000 intoxicated people up off the county’s streets every year, from $804,000 to $0.

Oregon already ranks 45th in the nation for access to addiction treatment, according to Department of Human Services spokesman Dave Austin, but the governor’s budget cuts reduce local rehab services even further. The county currently funds 160 beds in live-in addiction programs that treat 500 people per year—including 165 women accompanied by children. Under the current budget projections, the county will have to slice that to just 16 beds.

The cuts in the mental health services budget are equally extreme. The county’s mobile crisis response team is dispatched on 11,500 different calls each year to deal with mentally ill people who are causing some sort of danger in the community. The governor cut the projected budgets of that program, and the county’s walk-in clinic, which treats 5,000 urgent mental health cases a year, by 90 percent.

Austin hopes the legislature will come up with funding, maybe from the federal stimulus package, to patch up some of the cuts. “The alternative is pretty scary,” he says. “That will be people who are the most vulnerable being turned out onto the streets. And that’s not figurative language.”

“We can’t just cut our way out of this problem. We do need to raise some taxes,” says Cogen, who expects to announce new options for county revenue within the next few weeks.