Portland has been my family’s home for more than 50 years. What has been special about this city over these many years has been its community engagement in decision making and its carefully balanced political system. This system includes an elected mayor and City Council; a city manager-led administrative staff supporting the legislative decisions of our elected representatives, and strong input from the many neighborhood groups that have formed over these years.

Now, as a city, we are revisiting our city charter. An elected charter commission is discussing increasing the City Council size and salaries; implementing noncitizen voting in elections for citywide office, and allowing budget autonomy for the school board, as well as changes in the governance of the city. I have tried to follow the rationale for all these changes.

I am particularly concerned with a possible commission recommendation regarding the preparation of the city budget. One proposal would have an elected executive mayor prepare and submit the budget to the City Council. A second proposal would have the mayor give input to the city manager as the budget is drafted. In my view, both proposals are flawed.

Having had the honor of serving as Portland’s city manager for over 10 years, and having worked with mayors, city councilors and staff to draft and enact Portland’s budget, I question whether the charter commission members fully understand the time commitment or mechanics involved in preparing a municipal budget.

The FY 2022 municipal budget for Portland is $268,216,301. When one adds in the school budget, the overall combined budgets total over $394 million. Our city budget funds traditional services, such as police, fire, public works, parks and recreation and health and social services, as well as support operations such as planning and development, assessor and human resources. The city also has unique operations for a city our size. The Portland International Jetport is a city department, important to the economic growth not only of the city but also of the entire state. The Barron Center, a long-term care nursing facility, fulfills a city commitment to its aged and disabled residents. The Fish Pier, created to support our waterfront and fishing industry, is an enterprise fund in the city budget. Each of these entities has unique funding sources and reporting requirements.

The budget not only funds city services but also is a policy document reflecting Portland’s priorities. A budget of this complexity is not prepared in a week or a month. It is developed over months, with input from multiple sources. Revenue estimates for the upcoming year set a critical baseline. Line-item reviews of department budgets have to be carefully examined. A second review of department requests is often necessary to balance service and property tax impacts. When the budget is presented to the City Council, there is another review before final approval. This is a thoughtful, well-managed process that results in a multimillion-dollar municipal budget based on sound budgeting principles that serves the people of Portland.

Portland’s longtime approach to building the budget has been recognized by national credit rating agencies Moody’s Investor Service and Standard and Poor’s. Both have assigned an AA rating to our debt management and budgetary performance. Standard and Poor’s March 2020 report described the city management as “very strong, with strong financial policies and practices … (that are) well embedded and likely sustainable.” These are high marks of which both our elected and management leadership should be very proud.

The current budget process works. It should not be changed. It balances the administrative role of the city manager and staff drafting a budget with input and final approval from the City Council. The charter commission would be making a terrible decision for the future of Portland if it recommends to the citizens that the executive mayor be given the authority to either prepare or direct the preparation of Portland’s budget.

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