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As city deficit looms, commissioners sharpen their knives

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: L.E. BASKOW - The City Budget Office recommends closing four fire stations to balance the 2013-14 budget. While that may not occur, city commissioners expect some serious cuts to the fire bureau.Portland police and fire bureaus may shoulder more of the budget-cutting load this year, as the City Council grapples with a $25 million budget shortfall.

Interviews with city commissioners revealed an emerging consensus that public safety agencies won’t enjoy the same protection from the budget ax they had under former Mayor Sam Adams.

Public safety bureaus were “held somewhat harmless” in recent years, said city Commissioner Nick Fish, when they were cut at half the percentage rate of other general fund agencies. “We cannot use the old formula any more,” said Fish, former commissioner for two of those agencies, parks and housing.

“I understand what Nick is saying, and I’m not averse to that,” said city Commissioner Dan Saltzman.

City Commissioner Steve Novick is digging deep into the police budget, questioning longstanding policing practices in a quest to help balance the 2013-14 budget.

“I’m looking into the Police Bureau because, as Willie Sutton said, that’s where the money is,” Novick said.

Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Saltzman, when asked to list their top priorities to shrink the budget shortfall, both cited cutting police and fire overtime spending.

“That’s going to be my first question: Why is overtime so high?” Fritz said.

In the police, fire and other bureaus, Saltzman said, overtime is such a “cultural norm” that workers have an expectation of routinely earning much more than their base salary, via overtime. “Overtime is a real driver of our budget deficits,” he said.

City officials are still in the early stages of preparing the budget for the year beginning July 1, and horsetrading and lobbying over threatened programs and new spending ideas has barely begun.

But the City Budget Office released its recommendations last week, and that wasn’t good news for public safety bureaus.

As a starting point, City Budget Director Andrew Scott used budgets submitted last month by bureau managers — set at 90 percent of current funding to provide lists of recommended programs to prune or eliminate. Scott then took the $11.7 million the city anticipates having beyond those base budgets, and allocated most of it to police, fire and emergency dispatch services.

Even after doing that, Scott recommended the closure of four fire stations, eliminating 88 positions in the police bureau and nine dispatchers in emergency communications. He called for eliminating the police bureau’s mounted horse patrols and 21 of its 23 officers deployed in public schools.

Scott was especially tightfisted when it came to joint city-county programs. He recommended the city stop paying for 20 people who do fingerprinting at the county jail, county district attorneys, the Hooper Detox Sobering Station, and the CHIERS van that picks up drunks off the street and takes them to sobering services. Scott also recommended against continued city spending on other county services.

Hales hasn’t weighed in publicly on specific programs he’d like to cut. However, he has cited a desire to shave costs via early-retirement incentives and eliminating vacant positions, two strategies that reduce personnel costs while averting the need for layoffs.

Data released by Scott’s office listed 331 unfilled positions in the city — nearly one out of every 16 jobs budgeted for 2012-13.

Saltzman is skeptical the budget shortfall will wind up being $25 million when the dust settles. Lower-than-projected inflation is expected to save the city $2 million in cost-of-living adjustments, and Saltzman notes the city may be overstating the property taxes it will lose from voter passage of a county library district in November.

“The budget deficits that we’re looking at in January never turn out to be as bad in May,” Saltzman said.

He said it’s “ridiculous” to have 331 unfilled positions, and suspects bureaus are using those to stockpile money for other purposes.

“I think a lot of those are the gaming that’s going on,” Saltzman said. “All these bureaus cry wolf and they’re carrying money forward, and they use the money for other things.”

New ideas

But all the councilors and Hales stress there will be significant cuts this budget cycle, because the hole is larger than in past years.

And the police and fire bureaus account for more than half the city’s discretionary share of the budget, the general fund, which is where the shortfall is.

Novick is thinking creatively. He’s promoting a new policing strategy that redeploys police patrols to high-crime hot spots. He is questioning police bureau spending on big drug busts, reasoning that the entire “war on drugs” has produced dubious results.

He suggests eliminating a layer of captains at police precincts, reducing the deployment of police officers at high schools where crime is lower, and using non-sworn officers to do background checks.

Though some might suggest Novick is merely trying to deflect attention from the fire bureau, which he hopes to oversee when Hales assigns bureaus to the commissioners, Novick admits “fire is not going to come out of this unscathed.”

One of his ideas is to close fire stations down at night where activity is low, thus cutting personnel costs.

Novick also would like to limit the flexibility for fire bureau staff to take vacations during the peak summer season. “When you look at the numbers, there’s a surge in overtime in July, August and September,” he says, due to vacation replacements.

Fish wants to look at more creative ways to provide fire services, and establish more shared services for all the bureaus. Several bureaus, for example, have their own separate mapping departments, he says.

Fish says it’s time for the county, now freed from subsidizing libraries out of its general fund, to take back financial responsibility for county services the city has long subsidized. That includes city park payments for senior recreation services.

“Now the shoe’s on the other foot,” Fish says of county finances. “It will not solve our budget problem, but it will help.”

In the next few weeks, the City Council will continue to hold work sessions and public hearings on the budget. At the end of April, the City Budget Office will release a revised revenue forecast, on which the budget will be based. Hales will present his proposed spending plan to the City Council shortly afterward.

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