Editorial: Portland Parks cuts show city government’s own structural defect (Editorial Agenda 2019)

LC- Jack Bookwalter

City auditors recently reported that Portland’s publicly-run golf courses are essentially bankrupt. It’s part of financial crisis across the parks bureau that’s gone unaddressed, in part because of Portland’s faulty governmental structure that requires politicians – some with no management experience – to manage city bureaus tasked with providing core services. Jack Bookwalter/Special to the Oregonian. LC- Jack Bookwalter

In the grand scheme of the city’s budget, Portland Parks and Recreation’s $6.3 million deficit barely rates as a blip. City commissioners – if they wanted to – could fill that gap by making different spending choices that would prevent the closure of the Sellwood Community Center, next year’s shuttering of Columbia Pool and dozens of layoffs.

But as a whole, the council didn’t want to. As painful as that choice may be, it’s the right one for the long-term health of the bureau, which has been increasingly needing general fund bailouts to cover personnel costs, expanding programs and basic upkeep. Maintaining a vibrant network of parks, community centers, swimming pools and recreational programs is essential to preserving the quality of life in Portland and is a central obligation that any city owes its residents – current and future.

Such courage to make tough choices is long overdue. The city budget office has warned of threats to the bureau’s fiscal sustainability since early 2016. Budget analysts noted then that the cost of providing aquatics programs, child care and other services was significantly increasing, due to a settlement of a union grievance over work performed by seasonal workers. The budget office again sounded the alarm in 2017 and 2018, noting the backlog of millions of dollars’ worth of maintenance, insufficient revenue from fees and continuing increases in salaries and benefits for workers.

But it wasn’t until this year that city commissioners appeared to grasp the defects built into the parks bureau’s budget and recognize that patching together a one-year rescue only exacerbates the mismatch between revenue and spending needs. Under Commissioner Nick Fish, who took over management of the parks bureau last September, the bureau is closing three smaller community centers, all of which need substantial maintenance. The Columbia Pool will operate for another year as the city looks to build a long-planned aquatics facility at nearby Charles Jordan Community Center.

Such drastic measures in a booming economy rightly concern Portlanders. That most of the council was largely unaware of the severity of the bureau’s financial problems, however, should concern them more. It shows once again how poorly Portland’s commission form of government serves Portlanders who depend on city services to be run professionally and sustainably.

Unlike every other sizable city in the country, Portland’s form of government empowers the mayor and four commissioners to serve as both legislators who set city policy as well as executives who manage assigned city bureaus. So instead of, for instance, an experienced city manager who ensures that the transportation, housing, police and other bureaus are delivering core services, elected commissioners fill that role. The quality of oversight of any particular bureau will depend on an individual commissioner’s expertise in managing multimillion-dollar budgets, overseeing employees and familiarity with agency operations. Such experience is hardly a given.

Theoretically, city commissioners are supposed to make decisions with the good of city government as a whole in mind. But as past history shows, commissioners often stake out positions protective of their own bureaus’ budgets or interests. That’s hardly surprising considering their actions as bureau heads are far more visible to voters than any individual vote on a city ordinance.

And while keeping the same commissioner in charge of a bureau can help provide stability, it also risks letting problems go unaddressed – such as declining revenue and lackadaisical oversight of the city’s golf courses, as a recent audit found. Turns out the structural defects in the parks bureau that city budget analysts identified years ago weren’t the only things ignored. While Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who was the commissioner in charge of parks from 2013 until last September, bears some of the blame for the lack of progress in addressing those defects, the responsibility belongs to the council as a whole. City leaders should not be caught unaware by financial problems threatening such core services.

Editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board, which operates independently of the newsroom. Members of the editorial board are Therese Bottomly, Laura Gunderson, Helen Jung, John Maher and Amy Wang.

Members of the board meet regularly to determine our institutional stance on issues of the day. We publish editorials when we believe our unique perspective can lend clarity and influence an upcoming decision of great public interest. Editorials are opinion pieces and therefore different from news articles.

Credit Fish, who helped navigate the Water Bureau out of a contentious relationship with the public over controversial spending, for showing the same focus in trying to stabilize the parks bureau.

Fish told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that city leaders will look at alternative funding streams, such as a parks district similar to Multnomah County’s library district or another revenue source to strengthen the parks bureau’s financial footing. With its new director, Adena Long, the bureau is pushing community centers to adopt self-sustaining business models. And that will include evaluating whether programs and facilities uphold the parks bureau’s core mission and are worth the investment. “The days of offering programs that are well intentioned but didn’t generate revenue are over,” he said.

In the meantime, while the bureau is closing some facilities, Fish said he is looking at “creative solutions” that will help maintain public access to these centers. For example, the bureau is working on an agreement with L’Etoile French Immersion school, which already rents part of the Fulton Community Center, to take on some of the maintenance burden and keep the center’s dance space available for public use.

Those are all good steps. But Fish and city leaders should not stop there. They must recognize the other structural problem threatening the city’s livability and future and start the work now to change Portland’s form of government.

-The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board

Source Article