Police budget cut looms large before election day
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty's proposed $18 million cut to the Portland Police Bureau budget is the most recent supercharged local controversy in an already-polarized election year.
It is supported by some as a long-overdue criminal justice reform and opposed by others as endangering public safety. The decision will not happen until after the Tuesday, Nov. 3, general election — or maybe next January, depending on who wins the City Council races.
The City Budget Office is expected to release an analysis of the proposal before the council votes on it on Thursday, Nov. 5. That is two days after the election.
The analysis was requested by Mayor Ted Wheeler, Commissioner Amanda Fritz and Commissioner Dan Ryan when the proposal was first heard on Wednesday, Oct. 28. Hardesty and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who cosponsored the proposal, both said $18 million could be cut from the police bureau without any officers being laid off. But the three other council members said they wanted more information from the budget office — which works for the entire council — before making a decision.
After that hearing, Wheeler released a statement that said he and the two commissioners are in favor of reforming the police bureau, but want assurances that any changes to its budget will increase public safety.
"That's why a majority of the Council agreed to take a few more days to learn more, to continue to listen, and to ensure we move forward in a way that guarantees that we improve the safety of Black Portlanders and everyone else in our community," said Wheeler, who is in charge of the police bureau.
Hardesty lost her cool last week when the council did not immediately vote on the proposal after a five-plus hour hearing. She abruptly broke off from the online meeting after saying she was "disgusted by the lack of courage" from Wheeler, Fritz and Ryan. The next day, Hardesty endorsed mayoral challenger Sarah Ionnarone against, Wheeler, becoming the first council member to support an opponent against a sitting mayor since Commissioner Margaret Strachan backed Bud Clark against Frank Ivancie in the 1984 primary election.
Iannarone has promised to assign the police to Hardesty if she defeats Wheeler at the Nov. 3 runoff election. Although Hardesty had endorsed Wheeler for reelection, she had previously withdrawn her endorsement over how the police have been responding to the ongoing political protests.
Hardesty then sparred with Police Chief Chuck Lovell and the Portland Police Association after Lovell, the following day, said the proposal could result in the loss of up to 100 officers and numerous bureau programs. In dueling press releases, Hardesty insisted her proposal would not result in any layoffs, but mockingly called Lovell's estimate a counteroffer that she would consider.
Eudaly also is up for reelection. Her opponent, Mingus Mapps, does not support such a large police bureau budget cut at this time.
Despite the dramatics, longtime City Hall watchers thought that Hardesty had to know there was little chance the council would vote on her proposal during its first hearing. For starters, the council had already cut the police bureau by $27 million in the budget that took effect on July 1. Of that cut, $15 million was proposed by Hardesty and only opposed by Eudaly, who did not think it was enough. The rest was because of declining city revenues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic-related recession.
Hardesty specifically rejected the $50 million cut being demanded by some protesters at the time, but now wants nearly as much, $42 million, in cumulative reductions this fiscal year.
Ryan was not on the council when that first round of cuts was made. He defeated former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta in an Aug. 11 special election. Smith called for cutting the police bureau budget by $50 million during the campaign. Ryan said he thought the budget already had been cut enough for now, and Portland voters chose him.
City Hall procedures
In addition, even in these days of unprecedented disruptions, Hardesty was taking advantage of an obscure, semi-annual minor budget adjustment process to push for a complete overhaul of the most politically sensitive city bureau. The Fall Budget Monitoring Process — BMP or "bump" for short —historically has only involved small tweaks to city bureau budgets. There is always a one-week delay between the first hearing and the final vote to allow the City Budget Office to answer questions from the council members. Wheeler, Fritz and Ryan all said they needed more information about the proposal during the hearing, including whether any existing police bureau employees would have to be laid off.
The proposal also was offered with little public input and incomplete information on a fast track. Before announcing her proposal, Hardesty hosted some online discussions, but very few Portlanders were even aware of them. She first detailed it in a memo to the council on Oct. 19, the day before the sole work session on the fall BMP. In it, Hardesty said her vision for criminal justice reform included reducing and limiting the size and scope of the police, reinvesting dollars in ways that will directly support the most vulnerable community members, create alternatives to police, decriminalize nonviolent offenses, and demilitarize officers.
The memo offered specific cuts to the bureau budget totaling $18 million, including continuing the onetime 5.6% cut approved by the council earlier because of declining city revenues; eliminating 48 vacant position the bureau is currently trying to fill; and eliminating the Special Emergency Response Team and Rapid Response Team, both of which respond to such emergencies as hostage situations.
But no one — including Hardesty or Eudaly — brought up the memo at the Oct. 20 work session. Hardesty said she would be offering amendments during the upcoming hearing, but did not say what they would be. The rest of the council did not seem to be aware of the memo at the time.
And none of Hardesty's 10 proposed amendments distributed to the council at the Oct. 28 included any of the details in her memo. The only thing they said about the police bureau was, "Decrease bureau program expenses in the Portland Police Bureau General Fund by $18,022,101 in ongoing resources."
The other amendments said specifically where the money should be spent, including $7.5 million on food assistance for city residents, $7.5 million for legal defense for Portlanders facing eviction, $1 million for continued funding for city-sanctioned outdoor tent camps and portable toilets, $1 million for the creation of a Latinx Youth Development fund, and $2.6 million for the Portland Street Response program that is not scheduled to be deployed until next year.
An addition $14.5 million is set aside to balance the next budget or for "additional emergent community needs."
More than 150 people testified at the Oct. 28 hearing, most of them in support of the proposal. But they might not be representative of all Portlanders. Only 6% of city residents said "law enforcement" was their top priority in a DHM Research poll conducted for Oregon Public Broadcasting in mid-October. No one said "police funding," according to DHM Research political director John Horvick.
"If you ask voters, 'Do you support defunding the police?' It's overwhelmingly, 'No,'" he told the Portland Tribune. "If you ask, 'Do you support reallocating some police funds for fill-in-the-blank social service,' then the answer is probably 'yes.'
"I do think, though, that for each additional dollar that you move from police to something else, there is probably some less support," he added. "If it's a steady drop or a cliff, I don't really know. But I do feel pretty confident that there is a limit to how much people will accept moving out of the Police Bureau to other services."
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