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The crusade to save two Inner Southeast Community Center is taken to the City Commissioners

DAVID F. ASHTON - In front of the Community Budget Forums meeting hall, Woodstocks Dawn Haecker showed her support for Portlands small community centers, along with Arlo and Kari Haecker and Karen Schumaker, who live near the Sellwood Community Center. When Mayor Ted Wheeler and the Portland City Council held their only east-of-the-Willamette-River "Community Budget Form", on the evening of April 3, the spacious room at David Douglas High School was filled to its legal capacity.

In fact, after security guards at the door counted 847 people inside it – that's its stated capacity, according to the State Fire Marshall – late-arrivers were barred from entering, until after some of the attendees had spoken and left, during the meeting.

"Tonight is one of our Community Budget Forums, at which the Mayor and Portland City Council members hear from the community their priorities for the upcoming budget process," explained City of Portland City Budget Director Andrew Scott. "I think these forums are really helpful to Council members as they are going through the budget process.

"At this point, and things change all the time, we're looking at a $1.5 million dollar deficit for the City on an ongoing basis, and also, about a $24 million one-time surplus," Scott told THE BEE.

The key decision for City Council, Scott remarked, is how to allocate budget money "in order to fund some of the housing, public safety, livability, and resiliency issues that the Mayor has put forward – and where we need to make some 'realignments' in the city budget to do so."

Before the meeting THE BEE asked Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the Parks Commissioner, if she has hope for keeping the Woodstock and Sellwood Community Centers open.

"Oh absolutely!" she replied. "People love and need their Community Centers; it's a very strong budgeting item – but still, there's not enough budgeting to fund all the things that the Mayor wants to fund."

In his opening remarks, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said that, although the economy seems strong, costs are outpacing revenues.

"There are key challenges facing our community. For example, increasing housing options remains important, as does homelessness," Wheeler commented. "Also, maintaining critical infrastructure, enhancing livability, and ensuring public safety and police accountability, pursuing innovation, and pursuing resiliency – all of them continue to be important priorities.

"We asked Bureaus to submit budget options to give the Council a realistic look of what it takes to maintain 'mission-critical' programs, while also prioritizing investments that address key challenges facing our community today," Wheeler said. "Last year we spent about $27 million on addressing the homeless crisis, including homeless prevention, homeless interventions, emergency subculture services, addiction treatment, mental health services, and transitioning into housing."

Many testify for Woodstock and Sellwood Centers

One of the first to testify at the Community Budget Form was Dawn Haecker, who told the City's elected officials, "I understand you have received postcards sent in the past week or so, as long as well as a petition with several thousand signatures.

"You probably also heard we had a rally on St. Patrick's Day. On short notice, more than 300 supporters came to the Sellwood Community Center," Haecker continued. "And when we went to the streets with our petition, every person we spoke to said how obvious it was that resources like our Community Centers are non-negotiable.

"Why do we have to be in opposition every year?" Haecker rhetorically inquired.

Also having arrived early, Sellwood resident Julie Kern, who identified herself as a working mother of three, testified, "I'm here to oppose the proposed closure specifically of the Sellwood and Woodstock Community Centers, as well as the other small centers."

She pointed out that these Community Centers provide affordable after-school care, which is so popular that these programs have a waiting list.

"We need to be increasing services instead of decreasing them," Kern continued. "With the closure of the [Westmoreland] Boy & Girls Club in 2016, nothing has come along to replace it. There is no 'Plan B' for me, or for hundreds of other families in the area."

Several individuals testified for their own causes before Oregon Representative Rob Nosse District 43 (D), whose district includes the Woodstock neighborhood.

"I've been receiving e-mails from concerned constituents who say they need public indoor space, and asked me if I could do something about it, which prompted me to come to this forum," Nosse acknowledged. "I want to highlight how crucial it is to support public indoor spaces. This is a place for parents and children to come and be active while being protected from the elements – as you may notice, it rains here a bit."

Peter Adams, the Financial Manager of the nonprofit Friends of the Woodstock Community Center, gently shamed city leaders for considering closing the centers, and ended his testimony paraphrasing Oscar Wilde: "It seems that we're involved in a process in which we know the cost of everything, but the value of nothing!"

Two days later, when Commissioner Amanda Fritz was a guest at the Brentwood Darlington Neighborhood Association meeting, she remarked on the potential closing of the Woodstock Community Centers and others: "I think, after the magnificent showing on Tuesday at the Community Budget Forum, I would be astonished if my colleagues on the Portland City Council would vote to close the [Woodstock and Sellwood] Community Centers."

Into the evening at the budget hearing, testimony continued. One more such public forum remained – this one in North Portland – before, beginning in May, public hearings move to City Hall chambers. And, on June 7, the Portland City Council will adopt a budget.

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