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They're again on the 'cut' list for budgetary reasons; it's an annual ritual, but it could happen

DAVID F. ASHTON - Portland Parks Bureau Director Mike Abbaté outlined, as the January meeting got started, how the budget discussion would take place - accompanied by City Commissioner Amanda Fritz. Those concerned about the future of Inner Southeast Community Centers or programs traveled to the Sokhom Tauch Community Center, at the Immigrant & Refugee Community on N.E. Glisan Street, on Thursday evening, January 4, for a meeting that Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) called, "What is the 'Right Budget' for Parks?"

The PP&R meeting's promotional outreach made it clear that permanently shuttering both the Sellwood and Woodstock community centers is once again, as usual, among the budgetary choices the Bureau is considering this year.

PP&R Director Mike Abbaté set the stage for THE BEE before the meeting began.

"Tonight, we're sharing with the public some ideas that we have for ways that we can align this Bureau's budget with the Mayor's and the City Council's direction for preparing the Portland City budget this year," Abbaté explained. "We were asked to submit a requested budget that includes a 5%, or $3.2 million, reduction – so, we're here put some of those ideas out to people, and, get feedback from citizens about which are the 'right things' we should be cutting and, if not, what things we should we be cutting."

He said that the Portland Budget Office had revealed in December that, based on a new December economic forecast, it was projecting about a $4.5 million ongoing deficit for the entire city budget. But it got worse: Adding in contributions to the Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services, that gap may be as much as $14 or $15 million. In a telephone interview after the meeting, Portland Budget Office Director Andrew Scott verified these figures.

"So, along with all other 'General Fund Bureaus' that have been asked to make cuts of 5%, we've compiled about twenty packages of various kinds, affecting all parts of our organization," explained Abbaté.

Asked about the proposed cuts to Community Centers, he replied, "These are tough decisions – closing small Community Centers are some of the things we will be talking about, and hearing what people think about that.

DAVID F. ASHTON - SMILE Vice President Gail Hoffnagle, representing Friends of Sellwood Community Center, and veteran SMILE volunteer Nancy Walsh (at right), discussed the Parks Bureaus budget-cutting choices at the January 4 meeting, one of which could close historic Sellwood Community Center. "Places like the Sellwood Community Center come with long-term maintenance and capital improvement needs, it was not originally designed to be a Community Center, but instead, a boarding house."

Actually, the Sellwood Community Center – which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places – was originally designed as a YMCA facility, a century ago.

At the meeting was SMILE Vice President Gail Hoffnagle, representing the neighborhood association's Friends of Sellwood Community Center Committee: "Once again, the Sellwood Community Center is on the cutting block at the Parks Bureau; it seems like we've been on the cutting block, like, forever!"

About the Sellwood Center's characterization as an "older, smaller building", Hoffnagle remarked, "For people in Inner Southeast Portland, there is no Community Center south of Matt Dishman Community Center, or Mt. Scott Community Center out on 72nd Avenue – except for the Woodstock Center, which they're also trying to close! It looks as if we're being put in a 'recreation desert' here.

"We're getting thousands of new residents in the neighborhood, some of whom are living in new very small apartments, with no yards and no place to recreate – or, of the Center were to be closed, with no place to go to feel a sense of community – all of which are benefits our center has offered for 100 years," reminded Hoffnagle.

She decried having the Center again on the public "budget cut list", because "This also makes it very difficult for the Friends of Sellwood Community Center to fundraise for improvements to the building; few people want to donate funds for a building that might soon be closed." Ironically, historically, the Sellwood Community Center has brought in more revenue from its classes and programs each year than it has cost the Parks Bureau to operate it, so – as Hoffnagle noted – closing the Center might actually ADD to the city's budget deficit.

Observing that some City Bureaus make their cuts with little public process, Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz remarked, "I believe it's better to work in a more collaborative manner, because people are sometimes more understanding, and more accepting, if they understand what's happening, and why.

"And, also our community advocates are some of the best people to tell the Portland City Council what they want, and why we should fund it," Fritz said.

This meeting was more than just "window dressing" in the decision-making process, Fritz explained. "People do make a difference when they show up and advocate for their programs, whether or not they're on our 'cut list' – because we won't be sure about this until the very last vote."

DAVID F. ASHTON - Woodstock Neighborhood Association Chair Elisa Edgington listened intently to budget-cut proposals presented by the Parks Bureau, one of which might close the Woodstock Community Center. About the Woodstock and Sellwood Community Centers, Fritz said, "We do need to look at both this year's budget, and then also long-term: What are we going to do with our smaller Community Centers ... I fought to keep Buckman Pool open for as long as we did, acknowledging that we don't have a Southeast Community Center."

The potential of having their own Center shut down brought several members of the Friends of Woodstock Community Center to the meeting, too – including Terry Griffiths.

"Our group provides routine maintenance for the Center, as part of a partnership agreement with Portland Parks – a partnership we've had since 2004. Now the Parks Bureau claims that the Woodstock Center is being run at a $35,000 deficit; which is something we don't understand."

One of the other Woodstock supporters, Steven Beattie, said he's a volunteer assistant Tae Kwon Do instructor there, and, "Losing the Community Center would be a loss to the community that rallied around it to support for many years; the volunteers have lived up to their part of the agreement."

Expressing her displeasure with the potential closing of the Center, and at the meeting to support the Friends organization, was Woodstock Neighborhood Association Chair Elisa Edgington, who exclaimed, "Our Community Center is the heart of the neighborhood. All of the community events that we do are based out of that building; and, many of our elementary school kids started out in the preschool held there."

After the Parks Bureau floated the idea of closing the Center in the past, Edgington said, they'd rallied together, and sent a letter to Commissioner Fritz listing the reasons why closing it was inappropriate. "This year, the possibility of closing the Center definitely 'feels more real'. I don't know whether we will have the same opportunity for recourses that we did last time," the Neighborhood Chair mused.

As the meeting got underway, Parks Bureau Director Abbaté told the group of about 100 attendees, "Our city government wants to be looking at other ways of improving what we do, and we are complying with the directives, as are other Bureaus.

"We're not advocating for one cut, or another; we've looked at our entire budget, and our entire list of things that we do, and we have worked with our Budget Advisory Committee for input on our most important values; this list has come from those discussions," Abbaté said.

Those attending were invited to join one of three groups to discuss the proposals:

Service Area A – Asset Management, Director's

Office/Operations and Strategies

Service Area B – Land Stewardship and Urban Forestry

Service Area C – Recreation, Equity and Inclusion.

During and after the group discussions, participants were instructed to fill out lengthy ballots, indicating their preferences, given the available choices.

This was the last Parks Bureau public meeting scheduled regarding budget decisions. The Portland Budget Office has not yet released further dates for upcoming public budget meetings.

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