Public safety has been and should continue to be the top priority for spending General Fund money provided by taxpayers to fund basic services in the City of Portland. If the serious deficiencies recently detailed in Portland Fire & Rescue's facilities and apparatus had been highlighted during the budget process, I would have asked more questions and perhaps made different choices in allocating the 2010-11 General Fund budget. I firmly support maintaining and improving fire service, staffing, and equipment in Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R), and emergency preparedness in all City bureaus. These are basic services that are among the highest priorities for a city to provide to its residents, workers, and visitors.
I appreciate the work that went in to composing a bond measure for the Fire Bureau, Emergency Response Center, and emergency responder radio system upgrades. I believe the members of the Council all share the same goals of maintaining public safety in every neighborhood, and we value the good work of City staff in providing excellent service to Portlanders.
Today, I voted against the $72 million public safety bond measure referral, for the following reasons:
1. Council should prioritize paying for essential basic services first, before dividing up the remainder of the General Fund budget. Rather than asking for standard cuts across all bureaus, the budget process should prioritize core components of necessary services first, taking cuts out of other areas of bureaus' budgets and/or reducing cuts when this is not possible without impacting basic safety. I will seek changes in the budget process next year.
2. Many Portlanders are very close to losing their homes. If the majority of voters approves the bond, some folks will be hard-pressed to pay it, while struggling to keep their jobs and families intact in the recession. I believe one of my responsibilities as a City Council member is protecting the vulnerable minority. While $30 per year may not seem overwhelming, when added on top of sewer, water, and garbage rate increases it adds to the payment burden Council is asking Portlanders to shoulder.
3. There was inadequate public process about the need for the bond, and what should be in it. The funding requests should have been highlighted during the budget process, when citizens would have had an opportunity to comment.
4. Neither Council nor the public was informed of the need to replace Fire Station 21 and move Station 23 in the budget process. The Council should have reviewed the need to replace Station 21, and if necessary prioritized funding for it and for apparatus in the 2011-12 annual budget process
5. Portland Fire & Rescue receives $1.7 million per year in ongoing funding for apparatus replacement, in their base budget. The Commissioner in charge and Council chose this year and previous ones to take one-time cuts from this funding, but it is an ongoing allocation. An additional $640,000 per year, over the $1.7 million in PF&R's ongoing budget, is needed to stay on top of a 15 year apparatus replacement cycle.
* If the bond measure vote fails, Council should make funding this need ($2.34 million per year, ongoing) a priority.
* Since a 15 year replacement cycle is already at the edge of acceptable practice, proposals to cut the PF&R equipment budget should not be allowed, if/when bureaus are asked for savings. Other bureaus providing essential services should not be allowed to propose cuts that result in unsafe practices.
* If the bond measure passes, that will take care of all current and most future apparatus and equipment needs in Portland Fire & Rescue for the next 15 years. The Council should re-allocate the $1.7 million in ongoing funding no longer needed for apparatus, to other identified priorities in PF&R and/or other bureaus, for the duration of the bond measure. The re-allocation of the ongoing funds should be done in the Budget update hearing (BuMP) immediately after passage of the measure, before the overall 2011 - 2012 budget process, so that the public will be able to help decide and validate how the $1.7 million should be used for true priorities in the General Fund budget.
6. I proposed dedicating $100,000 in the 2010 - 11 budget to implement the Office of Finance and Management's suggestion to look at charging patients' medical insurance for medical services provided by PF&R, a request that Nick and Dan supported. The money for that study was reduced to $25,000 during discussions, then disappeared from the adopted budget. OMF said charging insurance companies could bring in $7 million annually, which would be more than enough to fund equipment replacement. PF&R's study in 2008 suggested much lower projected income. An independent study should be funded either now from contingency, or in the 2011-12 budget, to find out whether billing insurance could be a significant revenue recovery mechanism.
7. Portland Parks & Recreation went through an inclusive public process this past year, and decided now is not the time to ask voters for more money. Housing advocates have also discussed the need for a bond measure, but were asked to wait until after Parks. Council should review, together with the Multnomah County Board and Metro Council, all desires for additional bond-funded projects projected for the next several years, and decide on priorities and timing in a coordinated manner.
8. The recently published audit shows PF&R is meeting response time expectations for fire calls. While the medical response times are outside of the desired range, Council should discuss whether it is the City's job to provide emergency medical services. If so, we should consider how to provide emergency medical services with less wear-and-tear on fire trucks. While I supported Commissioner Saltzman's amendment to purchase four small rescue trucks for nimble medical response, that will likely not be enough to provide good coverage for medical services. Plus, funding for additional staffing for those vehicles may be needed. Medical response approaches should be studied, and reformulated carefully.
9. There has been no discussion regarding adding millions of dollars to the bond measure for the Public Safety System Revitalization Project (PSSRP) that will buy new digital radios for front line emergency response staff such as police officers and fire fighters. A worksession to brief Council on PSSRP was canceled and has not been rescheduled. My understanding is that the patch already purchased keeps the radio system operational through 2012, and that the plan was to prioritize $1.2 million per year from the General Fund to pay for the new radio system. Radios to keep public safety officers informed and safe are among the most basic of basic services for our brave employees. Funding the new radio system should have been prioritized in the General Fund budget, in my opinion. I recognize that would mean cuts in other areas.
10. Once the scope of needs identified for Portland Fire & Rescue were known towards the end of the budget process, Council should have been made aware of the funding deficits, discussed which of the needs should be prioritized, and identifeid options for how those needs would be met in the 2011-12 budget and/or by other mechanisms. Similarly thoughtful discussions, with public input, should have been conducted for PSSRP and the Emergency Communications Center.
Too many Portlanders are on the edge of losing their homes in the recession. Confidence in government making wise choices with taxpayers' dollars is low - a very significant problem at this time, since it is particularly crucial that government, business and community must collaborate to find solutions in this recession. I believe we must prioritize the use of taxes and fees in the General Fund, and explore new fee-for-services, before asking Portlanders to pay higher property taxes. I was therefore unable to vote in favor of the referral, even though I firmly support providing the equipment needed by public safety staff. Now that this funding strategy has been chosen by the majority of the Council, I trust Portland citizens to make good choices on the merits of the requested projects when voting in November.