If Portland is in such big trouble, why are the solutions on the table so small?

Facing the third “crisis” budget in a row, and expecting another next year, this seems like the time to look at deep structural changes to the way the city delivers services.

Instead, we are talking about parking tickets and branch libraries, rather than Public Works and the Police Department.

And we are talking about fireworks when we really should be talking about the Fire Department.

Is Portland’s current alignment of eight mainland stations the right size to serve the city’s needs?

Does the department have the right number of people, and do they have the right skills for the job that they do?

Should the services be provided by the city, or does it make more sense, as is done in much of the country, to deliver them on a regional basis?

Those questions are not part of this budget process, but they should be. Not because we don’t think we need a robust Fire Department, but because the department we’ve got represents nearly 15 percent of city spending.

If there were a smarter way to deliver those services, it could really affect the city’s budget and its tax rate in a way that smaller changes just can’t.

One way to get those questions on the table would be to study what other communities do, and maybe bring some outside eyes to evaluate our operation.

It’s an approach that should sound familiar. It’s what the Portland School Committee just did with special education.

When new Superintendent Jim Morse came to work last July, he commissioned an outside consultant to conduct a $40,000 cost-benefit analysis of the $11.8 million special services programs.

The results were devastating.

According to the examiners, Portland was overspending $2.5 million a year and coming up with less-than-optimal outcomes. Many of the report’s findings were disputed, but it became the basis of discussion during the budget process.

The School Committee’s proposed budget cuts about $1 million from special education next year, and school administrators promise to keep a close eye on both the quality and the efficiency of the program.

In the future, similar studies are promised for other cost centers in the school budget.

Why not study the Fire Department? There are reasons to believe that as it has developed, it is no longer built to do the job we are asking of it. In 2008, fewer than a third of the 13,000 calls for service were for fires of any kind. The rest were for emergency medical services.

Yet the department is staffed mostly with people who are equipped and predominantly trained to fight structure fires.

Like insurance, you want firetrucks when you need them, even though you hope you never do. But building a service based on what people most need could lead to smarter ways to spend what we’ve got.

The city and school budgets being separate, the city should do what the School Department did with special ed: Conduct an analysis of what we are paying and what we are getting in return. Not to settle the issue, but just to get the conversation started.

And the Fire Department is not the only place to look. Since its merger with the Parks and Recreation Department, Public Works has become the biggest spender in the proposed municipal budget, at 17 percent. The Police Department, at 14.9 percent, comes in just ahead of the Fire Department.

All of these are core services that no one wants reduced. But changes in the way they are structured would have the biggest potential to bring spending in line with the money coming in.

There is an appetite for this kind of review in the city.

Mark McAuliffe, past president of the Portland Regional Chamber, said his group compared economic development in Portland and other similar communities around the country in 2007.

He thinks it’s time for a similar comparison on city spending.

“(Our study) taught us a lot,” McAuliffe said. “To do something similar around the major areas of the city budget would be educational for everyone.”

Obviously, mid-April is not the time for amateurs to tear apart essential services in a budget that goes into effect July 1.

But this opportunity is not going away. Unless there is a spectacular turnaround, next year’s budget promises to be the fourth “crisis” in a row.

The time to start preparing for that debate is now.

The city should take a lesson from the schools and take the time to do a study.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]