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  • 20 Oct 2014

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Hales' budget cuts staff, ends mounted police patrols

Saying he spared no “sacred cows” to fill the city’s projected $21.5 million funding gap, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales released his 2013-14 budget proposal Tuesday morning, calling for 183 fewer staff positions, including 55 in the Police Bureau and 42 in the fire bureau.

Hales proposed to eliminate city funding of two popular programs, mounted horse patrols and the Buckman swimming pool, and close down the Office of Healthy Working Rivers.

He proposed a sewer rate increase of 5.3 percent and a water increase of 3.6 percent. Both are lower than the rates initially sought by the two bureaus.

Pruning the equivalent of 183 full-time jobs from the city’s workforce of about 5,800 amounts to a significant 3 percent overall staff reduction. However, Hales estimated that many of those reductions will be achieved by eliminating vacant positions. An unknown number of workers also are expected to take advantage of the city’s new early-retirement option, which will also alleviate the need for layoffs.

A March survey showed the city had 331 unfilled positions, including 51 in the Police Bureau and 25 in Portland Fire & Rescue.

The city will make up part of its $21.5 projected million general fund shortfall with a helping hand from the Oregon Legislature, Hales said. The PERS pension reform recently approved by lawmakers will save the general fund $3.5 million next year, and $12 million in total city funds.

Hales also proposes to save $2 million by reducing or deferring cost-of-living adjustments to most city employees. He proposes a COLA of 0.9 percent, or half the inflation rate normally used to calculate COLAs.

In addition to eliminating the mounted horse patrol, which would save about $1.1 million, Hales proposed reducing the number of police officers in several teams; traffic, gang enforcement, family services, school resource officers; property crimes, drugs and vice, and forensic evidence. He also recommended eliminating 17 police patrol positions, about the same as the current number of vacancies in those posts.

Hales wants to shift the way Portland Fire and Rescue operates to reflect what he called its “core business”— medical response.

All fire stations would remain open, but Hales suggested eliminating four regular fire companies, which employ 52 firefighters. In their place, Hales wants the fire bureau to create two-person Rapid Response Vehicle units, which use smaller vehicles than the traditional fire trucks and require fewer staff.

Hales proposed shaving $1.2 million in city support to Multnomah County programs. Some but not all that might be made up by the county, Hales said.

Hales, employing what he calls a “board of directors” approach to governing, at least as far as writing the budget, leaned heavily on ideas proposed by his fellow city councilors, which bodes well for getting his budget approved by the full City Council. Borrowing an idea proposed by his peers, Hales proposed “bridge financing,” to keep some older officers on the job long enough to move into retirement, thereby alleviating the need to lay off younger officers. That would protect the bureau's recent gains in hiring more minority police officers.

Police Chief Mike Reese said he accepts Hales' proposed cuts to the bureau because he understands public safety agencies must share the burden to balance the budget.

The Police Bureau and Portland Fire & Rescue have been largely protected from general fund cuts in recent years, but Hales said the magnitude of the cuts needed to balance the budget meant the two largest agencies in the general fund couldn't be spared this time.

Commissioner Dan Saltzman said he supports Hales' approach to both public safety bureaus. Saltzman says he will not fight to preserve the horse patrol and doubts that any other council member will, either. And Saltzman said he has advocated for smaller, medical-related vehicles and crews at the fire bureau for years.

Commissioner Steve Novick, who hopes to become the commissioner in charge of the fire bureau, also praised Hales’ budget.

“I have made no secret of the fact that I believe a restructured Fire Bureau should do what the ambulance service does and have different staffing levels at night than during the day, given that day call volume is much higher,” Novick said. “Ideally, I would like to see movement toward that change in this budget.”

Alan Ferschweiler, president of the Portland Firefighters Association, said he’s disappointed in Hales’ budget, saying it will require many firefighter layoffs.

There are occasions where two-person paramedic crews are fine, he said, but they should be done to supplement regular fire truck crews, not replace them. If a two-person crew arrives first at a house fire where someone is inside, they will enter the home without the protection of a fire hose, Ferschweiler said.

Kent Craford, director of a coalition of large water users, was disappointed that Hales proposed such high increases in city utility rates. He hoped there would be no increases or even a reduction in water and sewer rates.

Rob Wheaton, a council representative for Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Muncipal Employees, was pleased with the Hales budget proposal.

“He’s cutting in the right places,” Wheaton said.

“For the most part, it looks like they’re looking at the vacant positions.”

Reporter Jim Redden also contributed to this story.