The Portland city manager’s budget proposal looks like a good response to a temporary financial crisis. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s called for this year.

Portland is experiencing its third year of dramatic revenue losses that coincide with increased demand for services. All projections for next budget year suggest that it will be a bad year as well. Who can say that the following year will be any better?

This is not a temporary storm that can be ridden out with a few one-time fixes. There are long-term structural problems that are not going away soon, if ever.

City Manager Joe Gray has been at the helm through all these difficult years, and his stated priorities of preserving the social safety net and public safety are good ones. The city’s problems are not a result of extravagant spending, but of a sharp downturn in the national economy which has hit this service center with particular force. But this budget proposal, which will be presented to the City Council tonight, does not appear to look deeply enough at the city’s ongoing problems. Canceling a popular parking ticket forgiveness program would save $500,000 for one year, but it could also discourage downtown shopping. Getting rid of the annual fireworks display cuts the budget, but won’t help raise needed revenue in the future.

Even the proposed layoffs don’t appear to be a response to a deep-seated problem. Instead of analyzing all of the departments and determining the right number of employees, each department is being cut proportionally, as if by an arbitrary formula.

Two years ago, the city made structural changes that resulted in combining departments and reductions in administration as well as front-line workers. The continued shortfalls in non-tax revenue suggest that would be a better way to approach a crisis that’s not going away.

 


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