Auditor: Portland enhanced service districts lack oversight
Portland's elected auditor decried a lack of governmental oversight for the city's three enhanced service districts — warning that the "hand's off approach" to privately paid-for public services, including policing, creates a culture of unaccountability.
In a 12-page report published Thursday, Aug. 13, Auditor Mary Hull Callabero said the Portland City Council should write new rules for the districts governing how they are formed, what services they can provide and ensuring the public can provide input and seek transparency if things go awry.
"The city needs to ensure that services provided in these special districts do not come at the expense of non-paying community members in these public spaces," Hull Caballero said. "Portland cannot outsource its responsibility one geographic area at a time."
For instance, Downtown Clean & Safe, an enhanced service district managed by the Portland Business Alliance, pays for four Portland Police Bureau officers, who work in coordination with a private security firm to roust sleepers in doorways at first light and to enforce other laws. Shopkeepers can call a private number to report troubling behavior, but the firm may dispatch a uniformed officer.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, acting as police commissioner, is specified by contract to look over reports and complaints regarding the security firm, but the audit "did not find evidence" of such reviews. Without city monitoring, there is no way for the public to obtain that information through a public records request, according to the audit.
Similarly, the Lloyd District pays for a Multnomah County deputy district attorney who prosecutes crimes in that area. Both districts also provide other staffing and administrative support to law enforcement agencies, and Clean & Safe had until recently funded the Westside Community Court.
"These enhanced law enforcement or criminal justice services create a risk of disparate outcomes compared to other parts of the city," the audit says.
While the audit primarily puts public safety under the microscope, the city's enhanced districts also provide more innocuous services such as litter collection or graffiti remediation.
The Business Alliance contracts with nonprofit Central City Concern to hire cleaners, many of who were previously experiencing homelessness, via a program known as Clean Start. The Central Eastside Industrial District experimented with a free shuttle along Southeast Water Avenue, but shuttered the program due to low ridership in 2019, the Portland Mercury reported.
Kate Merrill, executive director for the Central Eastside Industrial Council, said the council issues quarterly reports, embeds outreach workers within their contracted public safety team, and has distributed $50,000 in community grants using money from the service district.
"We have people with lived experiences on our oversight committee and on our board," Merrill said. "We're in agreement in the need for oversight."
Service districts must be approved by City Hall, and renewed once every 10 years, after community members come together to form one using a volunteer board of local business owners or residents. There is no law guiding that process, however.
The city's Revenue Division, which collects and distributes the enhanced service district fees, says it was encouraged to create a "lean" administration when Clean & Safe and the Lloyd districts were formed in the 1980s and early 2000s.
"The Revenue Division is best positioned to collect revenue, and contract administration best lies elsewhere," said Thomas Lannom, deputy chief financial officer and Revenue Division director.
At a glance:
Lloyd Enhanced Services District
Clean & Safe Enhanced Services District
Budget: $5.007 million
Central Eastside Enhanced Services District
Budget: $3.058 million
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.