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Portlanders loves parks but the City Council faces tough time paying for them because of rising costs.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Portland Parks & Recreation has recommended closing the Sellwood Community Center (above) to help close a $6.3 million shortfall in next year's budget. Mayor Ted Wheeler has not yet released his recommended budget for the City Council to cosnider.

Protests against potential cuts to the Portland Parks & Recreation budget are growing.

But no one should be surprised the bureau has proposed laying off around 50 employees and closing facilities, including the Sellwood Community Center and Columbia Pool. Budget officials have been warning that parks spending has exceeded available revenue for years.

That does not mean parks users or workers are ready to accept the cuts. When rumors first surfaced that the Sellwood center was on the chopping block, longtime parks booster Gail Hoffnagle pushed back.

"Many programs at the center have long waiting lists, showing a desperate need for more services, not fewer. As our neighborhood has steadily increased in density — we're becoming increasingly jam-packed like sardines — we need more indoor places to gather, to stay connected with each other," said Hoffnagle, a former parks employee.

North Portland residents and neighborhood associations are opposing the potential closure of the Columbia Pool. Among other things, they have launched a Save Columbia Pool page on Facebook. It is the only public pool in that part of town.

Also proposed to be closed — either outright or if funding partners cannot be found — are the Community Music Center, the Laurelhurst Dance Center, the Multnomah Arts Center and the Fulton and Hillside community centers.

About 9 percent of the bureau's staff would be laid off if the proposed cuts are approved, although the largest share is concentrated in the Recreation Division that staffs the community centers. There, more than 20 percent of employees could be let go.

"These are the people that interact with the public every day. Highly skilled, passionate employees that teach our children, provide space for our gatherings, and create a conduit for us to be our best selves," said Christina Harris, an organizer for Laborers' Local 483, which represents most frontline bureau workers.

Parks employees who spoke to the Portland Tribune say they were blindsided by the proposed cuts. The employees — who asked that their names not be used for fear of retaliation — admit the bureau has had budget problems for many years. But they do not understand why the bureau is looking at laying off so many employees, especially considering the Portland economy is booming and bringing in more general fund revenue than ever before.

"Parks & Recreation deserves to be fully funded. The community deserves these services, and the employees that run it deserve to keep their living-wage jobs," Harris said.

Surprisingly, the workers who spoke to the Portland Tribune are not complaining that newly hired Parks Director Adena Long is being paid $29,000 more than her predecessor. They believe she deserves the money, arguing the parks director has historically been paid less than other bureau heads.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: ADAM WICKHAM - Grace Pedersen plays with two-year-old Opal at the playground in Mt. Scott Park on March 25, the first day of Spring Break. Other children were inside the nearby community center participating in programs at risk of budget cuts.

No word from Wheeler

The proposed cuts are included in the budget the parks bureau has requested for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The City Council was briefed on it on Tuesday, March 19. After all bureau briefings are finished, Mayor Ted Wheeler will submit his recommended city budget to the council on May 1.

He has not yet said whether it will include any of the proposed cuts.

Wheeler assigned the bureau to Commissioner Nick Fish earlier this year. It had been overseen by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who convinced the council to approve temporary fixes to the growing problem over the past few years.

"I want to acknowledge that there's no easy fix here — every implication of this proposal is painful — especially with layoffs, program cuts and closures," Fish said at the start of the council briefing.

At the same time, Fish admitted, "The bureau has been running at a deficit for years, as costs have risen faster than revenues. ... The independent City Budget Office has confirmed this, and advised that the previous practice of patching the hole with one-time strategies is not sustainable."

The budget office analysis said the current shortfall has been predicted for years. Specifically, the analysis cited the 2015 settlement of a labor grievance by Laborers Local 483, which represents most of the bureau's rank-and-file workers. The union charged the bureau had been using more than 100 temporary workers to do work that its contact with the city required be done by union employees. The conversion added nearly $4.4 million to the fiscal 2016-17 parks budget, a cost that has carried forward each year.

"Previously, recreation staff could reduce or increase seasonal hours in response to demands for classes and programming, but after the transition to permanent positions, there was less flexibility to decrease costs if revenue targets fell short," the analysis reads.

But that is not the only factor. So is a minimum wage increase approved by the council at the same time, along with previous and estimated cost increases for health care coverage and Public Employee Retirement System benefits.

Although the total parks request is $265 million, most of that is fixed costs. Instead, the council is focusing on $93 million in discretionary funds over which it has the most control, including fee-generated revenues. The projected $6.3 million shortfall is a significant portion of that money, requiring cuts, fee increases or both to achieve the balanced budget required by Oregon law.

Even after approving the settlement, the bureau was reluctant to significantly increase fees for parks programs to generate more revenue. The goal was to keep programs as affordable as possible, especially in historically underserved communities in East, North and Northeast Portland. But that contributed to the ongoing shortfall, which Fish insists the council must finally address this year.

The cuts also are being proposed after several years of the council directing an increasing amount of general fund dollars to homeless services. Wheeler is expected to request more than $20 million for such programs in next year's budget.

PAMPLIN MEDISA GROUP FILE FOLDER - The dance programs at the Sellwood Community Center will end if it is shut down because of budget cuts.

Partnership, private fundraising could help

If the council approves the cuts, some could be offset by private fundraising, according to the bureau. For example, the Community Music Center is supported by a nonprofit partner that could raise more money to support its operation. Such additional support also could be found for some of the other centers targeted for cuts.

An existing example is the successful partnership at the St. Johns Racquet Center. It is operated under a lease with nonprofit Portland Tennis and Education organization. The center manages the building for public tennis, and offers one-on-one tutoring, group tennis instruction, life skills instruction, and parent advocacy and training to school-age participants in a year-round program.

A team within the bureau's Recreation Division is studying which fees to increase and by how much. The council does not need to approve such increases. They have not been significant in the past, averaging between 3 percent and 5 percent per year to remain affordable. Any increases will be announced by the bureau before they take effect.

The park workers who spoke to the Portland Tribune do not believe such moves will come close to making up for the service cuts, however. They presented bureau-prepared budget documents that suggest entire programs at community centers will be eliminated because there will not be enough employees to staff them.

"How the City of Portland spends our money is a choice, and we are urging the public to let their priorities be known and contact their commissioners in regards to these potential losses," Harris said.

Public budget forums

The first public forum on next year's budget is a town hall budget forum scheduled from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 2, at the IRCO Main Office Gym, 10301 N.E. Glisan St., Portland.

Information on additional future public budget forums can be found at www.portlandoregon.gov/cbo.

The Sellwood Bee contributed to this story.


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