Portland Mayor Charlie Hales released his proposed budget for 2014-2015 Thursday, touting improvements from last year.
The mayor described the city as being in a budget storm previously with a $21.5 million shortfall. He noted how workforce reductions of 140 employees, decreased expenditures, and city managers' efforts to cut budgets and hold expenses resulted in improvements this year.
Hales said the city's now found itself with a $9 million surplus. Most of it will be used to pay off existing debt. But he said he's also committed to addressing the crisis of homelessness and the city's crying need for affordable housing. Other priorities the mayor laid out for the discretionary funding included emergency preparedness and the city's SUN program for kids.
The mayor's decision comes on the heels of a conversation about a street utility tax. Asked at City Hall by KATU News photographer Sean Broderick about the maintenance and safety of Portland streets, the mayor admitted, "We're not taking care of them today and we're getting further behind. That means we're passing a bill onto our kids and grandkids that's terrible."
Hales proposed budget does not include the $1 million transportation safety request made by City Commissioner Steve Novick. Novick is head of Portland's Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) and asked the mayor to set aside the money from the general fund to install 15 flashing beacons at crosswalks in dangerous intersections. Last year, 35 pedestrians died after being struck on Portland streets.
PBOT shared with Anna Canzano results of a new assessment of Portland roads showing that the city's 4,827 miles of paved streets are continuing to fall apart. Forty-eight percent of the city's busiest streets are in poor or very poor condition, which is the most expensive to repair. Fifty-four percent of neighborhood streets fit the poor or very poor condition categories.
"The streets really are deteriorating. Streets are kind of like teeth. If you don't do regular brushing flossing and cleaning, then you wind up with root canals and extractions which is much more expensive," said Novick.
Hales said PBOT's goal is to pave 100 miles of Portland's streets -- up from 30 last year -- with the same amount of money.
Aaron Brown, board president of Oregon Walks, told Canzano, "I'm profoundly disappointed by the fact that the 2014-15 budget does not include Commissioner Novick's request for one million dollars for 15 crosswalks. It had been a proposal that really highlighted what is a major public safety problem in the city of Portland. Our streets are perilously unsafe for folks that are pedestrians in east Portland and Southwest Portland as well."
At the press briefing, Hales elaborated on why he didn't include Novick's request in his proposed budget.
"If we spent a few 100-thousand dollars of general funding on critical safety improvements in the transportation system, it would give people false hope (that we can) somehow move money around in the general fund, fix up the streets and keep from killing 35 people a year on the streets, which is how many we killed last year with cars in Portland. We can't do that without new money," insisted Hales.
Hales and Novick have discussed the idea of a tax devoted to improving city streets and making them safer. Hales said people often ask why city leaders can't just pay for roads out of the general fund.
"The answer is the general fund pays for police, fire and parks. That's 90 percent of it. And it pays for a few other things. It does not pay for your streets," said Hales.
Novick said two phone surveys conducted by the transportation bureau found citizens are most concerned about two things -- maintenance of the city's existing transportation system and safety, such as better sidewalks for kids and seniors to use. He said the survey also found citizens preferred a monthly household street fee versus an increase in property taxes, so long as businesses pay the same monthly amount.
He also pointed to citizen inquiries about other funding resources like state incomes taxes.
He explained that revenue pays for education, health care and prisons.
"I had a friend once who said of the state, 'We educate, we medicate and we incarcerate,'" said Novick, chuckling.
Novick said the transportation bureau's budget is funded through gas taxes and parking fees, but in recent years gas tax revenue is down because people are driving less and using more fuel efficient cars.