The bureau that manages Portland’s transportation system has been fighting for more revenue for many years. In late 2012, the funding problems at Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) were so bad that City Council directed PBOT to convene a “financial task force” and develop a report to help aid future decision making. That 11-year old report found that PBOT’s funding model was, “antiquated, unstable and in need of an overhaul.”
Fast forward to 2023. With no major shift in their funding model since those alarm bells rang in 2012, PBOT is at the end of their line. Or, as PBOT Commissioner Mingus Mapps put it at a Council budget work session May 10th, “We are running out of lifeboats and the problem continues to get worse.” Mapps is so desperate he was willing to float the idea of an $8 per household fee to save the transportation bureau — a move that in a different political era could have cost him his job.
Past PBOT commissioners must be shaking their heads. The exact problem they and PBOT leadership have warned about for years — that too much of the agency’s revenue relies on driving and parking cars downtown (both of which go against the city’s stated goals and values) — is coming to fruition much more quickly than expected. PBOT has clung to parking meter fees for years, knowing full well that if they succeeded in getting more people onto buses and bikes, they’d eventually have to let them go. Then Covid came and wiped out downtown car traffic, taking a valuable piece of PBOT’s budget with it. Now there’s a chance the bureau might face devastating cuts to staff, maintenance operations, and popular programs — like Sunday Parkways and Safe Routes to School — even sooner.
Thanks to a 40-cent meter increase approved by City Council in February 2022, PBOT figured they could remain in the black for one more year. But that was before new projections accelerated the parking decline and before Mayor Ted Wheeler went on an anti-tax crusade.
Wheeler held a surprise work session at City Council Friday. It was unexpected because the schedule of the budget process is predictable for a reason. Not only do commissioners hate surprises during budget season, but by the time the Mayor’s proposed budget is released and work sessions take place, all the major reductions are already accounted for. It’s certainly not normal for a Mayor to convene a special work session on his own accord — especially not one whose expressed purpose was to question whether or not proposed rate and fee hikes should happen at all.
“We’re hearing growing concerns that Portland is an increasingly difficult place to live and work due to increased taxes, utility rates, and fees,” Wheeler said at the outset of Friday’s meeting. It was a brutal exercise: city bureau directors and top-level staff had to justify proposed increases and explain what might happen if they don’t go through. To set the mood prior to the meeting, Wheeler proposed a one-year freeze on all new city fees and utility rate increases. City staff knew what they were up against.
PBOT Interim Director Tara Wasiak was there to plead the case that the 40-cent parking meter rate increase would send the agency into oblivion if it wasn’t allowed to move forward.
“The 40-center meter increase makes up for rate increases that should have occurred since 2016 (the last time rates went up) to account for inflation,” Wasiak explained. “If the increased is not approved, we will need to find an additional $8.3 million to cut.” Those cuts would come on top of years of brutal budgets that have winnowed PBOT staff to the bone and left cash reserves nearly empty.
To put the impact of losing the 40-cent increase into perspective, PBOT put together three scenarios that would save them $8.3 million. Each one would require a terrible combination of fewer services, programs and projects. Upon hearing about a scenario to make across-the-board cuts, Mapps asked PBOT Business Services Director the most important question:
“How many people do I have to lay off at PBOT under this scenario?” Mapps asked.
“Probably around 100 FTE,” Patton replied.
PBOTers are used being in a sour mood during budget season, but this move by Wheeler has likely taken things to a whole new level. Not only is it coming very late in the budget process, but the parking rate increase has already been approved by council (Wheeler himself voted for it). Adding to PBOT’s likely frustration is that their research shows people wouldn’t even notice the higher parking price. Based on a March 2023 PBOT survey of people parking downtown, only 4% of people said cost influenced their decision to drive and 82% didn’t even know the price before leaving home. 94% of folks who took the survey said even if they knew the price they’d still choose to park. “This data indicates to us that the price of parking is not influencing people’s decision to drive and park on downtown streets,” Wasiak said Friday.
But despite PBOT’s pleas, politics might trump parking policy.
In the past week as Wheeler has sought attention for wanting to reduce Portlanders’ “collective tax burden,” he’s made the argument that people have historically been willing to pay more to live here. “What we’re hearing is about the value proposition,” Wheeler said Friday. “Portlanders… support a myriad of taxes and fees on themselves provided they feel that they are getting the value in return.”
“And during this challenging time in our city’s history, I think we can all agree with a degree of honesty and self-reflection that people don’t see the same value that perhaps they did.”
Wheeler’s not wrong in that assessment; but he should acknowledge that he’s been mayor since 2017 and the value many people used to see in this city has been winnowed to almost nothing. Now he’s trying to make things better by cutting taxes and asking his fellow commissioners to pay a very steep price, “give the programs that we’ve invested in time to show their worth to the public.”
For his part, Commissioner Mapps made it clear Friday he disagrees with Wheeler. “I think the proposal to freeze utility rates and forego the parking revenue increase are, really, frankly disastrous and unwise.” But Mapps said he would be willing to consider a rate freeze on transportation system development charges (SDCs). That move would result in a $400,000 cut to projects PBOT already has planned in the coming year.
The next step for this discussion comes at City Council’s meeting on Wednesday (5/16). Stay tuned.
Ok, now if the 40 cent planned increase in parking meter fees is too tough a pill to swallow…let us make some lemonade….!
….how about retaining the 40 cent bump for this next budget year (you don’t need to do anything with it) and start working on an alternative for next year (you can always reduce the City Center parking fees then) such as a in-vehicle parking meters (or Parking Kitty) for areas without curb meters AND a per off street stall parking fee for commercial and work sites.
Plus both of these would help level the parking fee burden between the City Center and the outer commercial areas. The City Center has lost its shine so it cannot carry the load for other commercial areas and stay competitive. This new fee could that be allocated by TMZ for enhanced transit, street maintenance and eco goals (impervious surface mitigations for suburban parking surfaces etc.).
I’m not sure BP is prepared for the massive shitstorm about to hit PBOT (as well as a few other bureaus); those 100 FTE are not likely to fall heavily on the Development Review side, which generates fees. Sections devoted to SPENDING money, say, for… I dunno, active transit and safety, are going to go second (one assumes PBOT knows it would be a bad look to defenestrate those folks right off the bat, and has unfilled positions and retirement-inducing as the first round).
“City failure happens incrementally and then by cataclysms. “The incremental failures are often things like the sewer system can no longer handle the water coming in and the investment in the sewer system is no longer what the city can handle.””- PSU prof Vivek Shandas, quoted in The Next Civil War by Stephen Marche
PBOT can’t maintain what it has, can’t find a way to raise revenue, and so will not be able to build much new safety infrastructure.
Development Review WILL however keep piling people onto the roads.
It’s almost as if that letting the entire city go to crap the last 5 years would have no consequences on tax revenue and spending…..
That allowing the city to be covered in graffiti and tents would spur investing and business to thrive and create jobs and revenue….
Just wait until the city’s property tax base is hollowed out by commercial real estate foreclosures* (which will beget credit tightening and more insolvency). I think there is a good chance that we will see the largest implosion of CRE since the S&L crisis — and this time west-coast cities are in the bullseye.
*insolvent and foreclosed properties often stop paying property tax. the tax is paid after the sale — a process that can take many years.
PBOT is at the end of line for funding so they need to build a 1 block section with plastic bollards on a street (Skidmore) with not much traffic for a few hundred thousand dollars at least and this is just a minor part of the cluster**k spending this city does.
We have the worst city government in the nation right now, hands down, no contest.
Comment of the month!
Statements like this usually demonstrate a complete ignorance of any city outside of the viewer’s home area – a Portlander might know about Seattle but likely nothing about Spokane, Bakersfield, Fresno, and other cities in the region, let alone cities in other regions like Buffalo, Detroit, Birmingham, or Hartford for example.
Of course I don’t know every city but since you listed Spokane, I just checked, they have a 1.2 billion dollar budget for 230,000 people, Portland’s budget is 7.1 Billion for 600,000 people, about twice as much per person. Very efficient.
Detroit Michigans budget is 2.33 Billion for 630,000 people.
Any more you want to compare?
That tells me nothing about how those budgets are managed.
Nor does it tell you what the city’s amenities and services it has to provide.
How else do you compare cities except by the budgets?
I think Spokane is a perfectly fine small city for half the money spent per person.
Detroit is not bad these days if yo have been there and they spend 1/3rd the money we spend.
I don’t know what more you need as evidence that this is a really poorly run city.
How do you know Spokane is a perfectly fine small city or that Detroit is not bad these days? Portland is not bad these days either and on superficial drive through view it seems perfectly good barring tents you’ll see (here and also in most cities). How is Detroit’s sewer infrastructure, what are its roads and bike lanes like? It seems hard to evaluate all this stuff if you don’t live there, although maybe you’ve done the deep research to really figure this stuff out, I don’t know.
I appreciate your vote in confidence in our city and how it’s being managed, but I assure you… it is bad these days, and while everywhere is having problems, ours are an order-of-magnitude worse.
The difficulty of comparing city budgets exceeds what should probably be attempted in a comments sections. The reality is that the topline number reported in a media article or on Wikipedia can rarely be directly compared to that of another city, due to differing accounting requirements and activities. For example, Oregon requires that subdivisions include interfund transfers in their budget totals, which means they’re counted as expenditures both in their originating fund and the program that ultimately expends them. In FY23, this was $1.4 billion of the $6.8 billion budget total that you would have heard reported in the media.
Detroit’s budget doesn’t seem to include interfund transfers, so that reduces the discrepancy right there. Detroit’s budget also doesn’t seem to include contingency, while Portland’s has an enormous $1.4 billion worth (20% of the topline total!). It’s not clear to me if Detroit’s classified line items contain contingency, but regardless this is a big problem for trying to do an apples-to-apples comparison of the two cities. Additionally, Portland’s budget has $605m for debt service while Detroit has only $146, so comparing the actual budgeted activities you get a total of $2.3 billion for Detroit and $3.4 billion for Portland.
I’ve spent enough time in both Detroit and Portland to feel that a 2:3 ratio is reasonable for the level of services provided, if not a bargain for Portland. That being said, Portland’s overhead seems really high, with the Office of Mgmt & Budget alone costing $514m. Of course, one obvious difference between the two cities is cost of living, and indeed Portland’s cost per FTE is almost double Detroit’s, at $150,602.80 vs $88,971.73. While bankrate.com only comes up with a 20% difference in the cost of living between the two cities, for hard costs like housing the difference is much higher (80% for rent!). And that brings us back to the budget, because when you zoom into the services, Portland does indeed provide far more than Detroit. For example, at least $200m was budgeted in FY23 for housing development & preservation (that’s actual program expenses, not including overhead & shared dept expenses), and while Detroit’s budget doesn’t have a comparable level of detail, their entire housing dept budget was only $65m, so they could only be spending a fraction of what Portland does on building and preserving affordable housing.
Of course, maybe in Detroit the housing authority or the regional body takes on more of that work, so you don’t get a fair representation by looking just at the city budget. But that brings me back to my first point: comparing city budgets is too hard to do just in the comments section. Hopefully my comment has provided some evidence for that.
In the nation? You really think so?
Name a worse one….the election results tonight had voters voting down the new tax 80-20.
It can’t be too soon to vote out the people running this disaster, there is hope.
The capital-gains tax was put forward by DSA; it had nothing to do with city gov’t, and the fact that it was voted down signals that Multnomah County residents have had enough of new taxes, especially ones that produce no discernible results, like the homeless-services tax.
We all deserve some of the blame for the current s**tshow that is Portland, but the lion’s share in my opinion has to lie with so-called “homeless advocates” who block any sensible efforts to get people off the streets. This crisis is what’s lowering the value of Portland, along with the homeless-services tax that is paid only by the high earners who run the corporations and make the decision to be in Portland in the first place. It’s fine to fund services as long as funding is progressive; but putting the burden on one group only breeds resentment.
But that ultimately speaks to how poorly run the city is. Most normal cities don’t let a vocal small minority of the population choose how everyone has to live. The City of Portland’s incompotent and ineffective civil service leadership and politicians choose to bow to them. They have no authority.
In my opinion the ultimate blame lays with Mulnomah County. They hide in the background, most people don’t know they exist, and their leadership is truly off the rails in terms of refusing to take common sense actions.
Unfortunately Vega Pederson is right in with Deb K’s grift circle and the voters made her county chair. Brimm-Edwards being elected is good but a little late.
That measure had nothing to do with the people we elected. It was put on the ballot through a signature campaign. The fact that you are unaware of that makes me think your opinion about our city government isn’t based on much.
Zing…. you got me idle bytes… I know nothing. I count on your expertise in all matters….
My opinion is my opinion, i realize it’s not worth as much as yours is. Maybe you should be the monitor here since you decide who’s opinions are worth anything…
***Moderator: the moderator does not decide whose “opinions are worth anything,” but I do step in if exchanges get too personal or negative. This back and forth is right on the line. Let’s end it.***
I read DWK’s comment as that the tax was voted down. Stop, change of subject. The disaster that these people need to be voted out of because is long running and not specifically the new tax.
Portland and the whole Metro have been getting what it deserves as far as its voting habits go. Vote for incompetence and incompetence is what happens. It’s pretty straightforward.
I live in a lovely community that isn’t Portland, as I’m sure many others contributing and reading BP do as well. I won’t list what I like about my community. Instead I’ll tell y’all why my community is a bit dysfunctional – you can decide if it’s “worse than Portland.”
Greensboro NC – we wait for good things to happen, and are still waiting…wait…wait…wait…..
The budget of Greensboro is 750 million for 250,000 people.
Portland spends 5 times as much per person.
They also voted 70% for the Children’s Levy. That’s another tax on the same ballot. I think the reason the eviction tax went down are that the program already exists and doesn’t use all the funds it already has, it was super clunky about who and how it would be paid, and every politician from the city to Blumenauer came out against it.
And half the money it would raise would be spent on administering it. Talk about inefficient.
Half the money spent on government bloat?? What’s the phrase?….,,, It’s not a bug it’s a feature. I don’t think it’s going to bother the city too much to use half the money on themselves. I do like how they continually use the $200,000 house to say how much the homeowner will pay. I sure wish I had found a $200,000 home while I was still working far too hard to stay in the city.
And the city looks good in comparison to the county.
The recent explosion of tax increases (Homeless, PCEF, Preschool, Metro Housing, Library) in Portland may actually be more detrimental to the success of Portland than the record traffic deaths, homeless, shootings, murders and property crime. A year delay isn’t going to help but Wheeler is finally beginning to sense what voters have done with their passage of such poor tax policy.
This has nothing to do with being mayor of Portland and everything to do with being the former mayor of Portland. This is not policy, this is Ted positioning himself for whatever he plans to do next.
That’s an astute observation. Thank you.
I remember Kirk Watson, the 90s mayor of Austin giving the town away to tech companies to line hisself up for Gubner or Senator; even if he hadn’t monumentally f’ed up a national media appearance on behalf of Obama, it was apparent it was never gonna happen. Jerk Watson ended up being a state rep or some such. Ted will be lucky to get that, and we will be lucky to avoid the soulless techbro sprawl that is now Austin. Since the city seems to think “apres moi, les deluges… of revenues” I wouldn’t bank on it.
More and more of our money continues to go to…nothing! The city (and the state) already have plenty of revenue of all types, they just manage it like complete imbeciles. They say the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Stop sucking on homeowners and W-2 wage earners for each hit of new revenue and figure out some other way to raise the money. There are so many ways to do it – more tax on the multinational corporations doing business here, more tax on the billionaires living and playing here, more tax on the shipping and freight industry, institute a luxury sales tax. Good grief, what’s it going to take? IMO City Council’s idiocy will continue to be on display right up until they all finally get swept out of office in the upcoming reforms.
So just say you’re in favor of a sales tax, because net net, that’s what you’re advocating for.
Tax the multinational corporations = increased costs, effective sales tax
Tax the Billionaires: The three that live here, how and with what method and can you guarantee that won’t effect their willingness to stay? The one’s who play here, they already pay huge lodging tax, are you going to ask people their net worth before they come to OR, that’ll boost tourism.
Tax the shipping and freight industry = increased costs, effective sales tax. Oh and the one’s that don’t use our port anymore?
Institute a luxury sales tax = How much would it have to be and on what goods to even meet the costs of enforcement, let alone produce actual funds?
In the end, a sales tax fixes all of this, but we’re so fearful that everyone might have to contribute a bit to society that it is politically radioactive. Yet, the people we are supposedly protecting from a sales tax are those who are most likely to be hurt by a continuation of current policy as they are less likely mobile and able to move to other areas with different costs of living and tax structures.
The city of portland has so catastrophically mishandled the protests, homelessness, parks, library, water bureau, police… basically everything they touch, it’s hard to see taxpayer appetite for any more taxes and fees anytime soon. And good. They need to prove they are willing and able to return good value for taxes. Right now it’s an embarrassment of failure and radical left groupthink.
I agree with everything you say, yet I also think it’s stupid for Wheeler to go after a 40-cent parking fee to prove his anti-tax bonafides. He really needs to campaign for the repeal of the homeless-services tax, which is paid only by high earners who are pulling their companies out of Multnomah County, and Measure 110, which is facilitating the drug crisis on our streets.
We stopped hiring on competency long ago.
I know a lot of people in Portland won’t believe this, but Covid has been over most places for 2 years. There are other cities that shut down just as hard as Portland (granted they opened up earlier based on data and didn’t stay closed based on emotion) and they have recovered much further than Portland. There are reasons outside of Covid that PBOT revenues haven’t returned
Shhh. Some folks here enjoy Covid and all it’s pagentry. Don’t take that away from them too!
Yeah as an immunocomromised person I sure did enjoy being hospitalized and in the ICU. Pure”pagentry”!
This is like Kansas-level “austerity politics” where politicians say the best thing to do is starve the government of revenue and force the city to tighten its belt, when really that means strangling it to death. 100 FTE layoffs at PBOT will mean potholes are left unfilled, streets won’t be swept, street lights will go out or even fall down, and way fewer streets will be repaved. Complaints about missing stop signs or signals malfunctioning will go unanswered. It would be a disaster.
Newsflash – none of those things are getting done now, and will continue not getting done regardless of whether parking revenues go up or not.
A lot of Pothole weren’t getting filled anyway. Seriously, how many potholes have been filled over the last 10 years?
Potholes are constantly being filled in this city because it does not have the funds for base road repair. Heck at Irving and 16th there is a pothole that has been filled many dozens of times. If the cuts manifest I’m going really, really going to enjoy the complaints and whinging on bike portland.
(In a libertarian town like Portland all that’s left to me from a political perspective is schadenfreude.)
Same here. Invest in some fat tires or a gravel bike.
Potholes: natures traffic calming.
“In a libertarian town like Portland…”
Libertarian town? High tax, equity obsessed, shoveling money into unaccountable nonprofits, Portland is the opposite of libertarian. That’s just a ridiculous claim.
What I find interesting looking at any budget, but particularly at infrastructure agencies, is what does not get cut – usually matching funds for state & federal grants, the BES sewer cleaning fund that PBOT relies on for as much as 30% of their operating revenue, debt payments (bonds), pension funds for past employees, the Director’s salary, and so on.
Some of those things can’t be cut, e.g., debt payments and pension funds for past employees.
Let’s see if the nonprofits feeding off city grants get cut. My Magic 8-Ball says “Very doubtful.”
People driving downtown or to a Blazers game are going there to spend money. They’re not going to notice a 40 cent increase above what is already crazy cheap parking for a city. The people who say they won’t come downtown wouldn’t have come anyway.
Comment of the week!
You’re right because they are paying $20 to park in the garage, not at a meter, because the cost savings isn’t worth going out to your windows smashed in.
An $8.3 million cut at PBOT would imply a staffing reduction of 60 to 70 FTE, and that’s assuming none of the $8.3 is going towards match, debt, materials, and so on – if it is, then PBOT is vastly overstating its existing staffing levels.
A reduction of 100 FTE would imply a cut of $10 to $12 million, so I’m curious, how is PBOT calculating the FTE rate? Does the 100 include unfilled “paper” positions?
The emphasis on the word “FTE” (full-time equivalent) is a dead giveaway – PBOT staff are playing budget games as usual. Based on past practices, I suspect that after is all said and done, on July 1st 2023 you will see zero actual layoffs at PBOT – most of the positions being cut only exist on spreadsheets, future hires and promotions for the most part, plus a few people retiring, some quitting to take jobs elsewhere, some being retrained for other jobs at PBOT, interns being let go because they maxed-out their 800 hour limits, some transferring to other agencies such as BDS, and still others reducing their hours to be part-time.
That could totally be true, but wouldn’t it still result in a reduction in the workforce available to maintain and build our transportation infrastructure?
I mean, saying “We’d have to lay off 100 people!” clearly could be a way to increase the emotional impact of the cut, so good point. But even if no one got a pink slip, the cost-saving actions you helpfully list would probably cause a reduction in service, which no one prefers.
Wheeler clearly has an ear to the ground on this: a lot of high-earning and high-net-worth people are complaining about the tax situation here. Between property taxes and, a head tax, and other special taxes, a very influential group of people are definitely starting to feel maxed out.
That said, I do wonder if people would feel less maxed out if they felt like the money were being put to good use. Given the slow pace on solving our problems, paying more seems perverse.
That said, parking meters should definitely charge more. Reducing PBOT’s budget would reduce services, and most people wouldn’t notice any savings when they park their car, much less pay their taxes. Street parking is completely voluntary for many parkers, and it’s cheap to begin with. People are tired of paying more in taxes. Why should Wheeler raise a stink over the peanuts in parking?