The politics of the pandemic and protest may have been brutal and divisive in Portland, but few city officials are better placed to quell these hot tempers than firefighters. Eventually, they rescue kittens from trees, run into burning buildings, and give kids stickers while wearing snapsPy uniforms. What’s not to love?
So it came as a particular surprise when the Portland Fire Bureau announced last February that it would take an indefinite pause on a $147 million demand from voters that would have repaired buildings that had been neglected for decades.
“Let me tell you, we’ve never seen poll ratings this bad in the history of Portland Fire and Rescue,” said Jo Ann Hardesty, the City of Portland Commissioner, which oversees the department, at the time.
The bad numbers were at odds with recent history. “In the last 10 years there have really only been two local grants that have failed in the Portland area‘ said John Horvick, senior vice president at DHM Research, the firm that conducted the survey on behalf of Portland Fire and Rescue.
Since 2010, Portland voters have agreed to raise taxes and borrow billions for homelessness, affordable housing, preschool, arts, school construction, global warming, teachers, parks, the historical society and more. The only failures: a 2011 school bond, repackaged and passed the next year, and a 2020 Metro transportation measure to fund transportation and transit priorities in counties Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington that made it to voters on the right side to be equally unacceptable (extended light). Rail? No, thanks!) and the left (highway expansion? No, thanks!).
“It’s a common joke that Multnomah District voters have never seen a tax Measure they don’t like – but the Metro Transport bond is a red flag,” says Paul Manson, who teaches political science at Reed College. From his point of view Metro didn’t know that the left and the right would both find counter-arguments.
For bureaucrats looking to fund future programs — and the taxpayers who would foot the bill — the big question is: Does Historic Voter Discontent Mean the End of Portland’s Frugal Ways?
Maybe not. Elected officials — and citizens in general — are pursuing electoral policies that are highly likely to pass, so it seems unlikely that they would abandon Oregon’s centuries-old tradition of local initiative. The key question to ask is, “Will it fund voters’ highest priorities? And if they don’t, you really have to think about how they’re going to react,” says Horvick.
His company’s polls show that Portland’s top problems right now are homelessness, crime, and housing affordability. “Voters are looking for trust in the municipalities. Do you feel that the people who are going to get this money will use it effectively?” adds Horvick.
Truthful storytelling is important by those selling such measures, says
Jeremy Wright. He is the owner of Wright Public Affairs, a consulting firm that has worked on recent Portland Public Schools actions and on dozens of local initiatives across the state. One of Wright’s acid tests was Portland Public Schools’ massive $790 million school building loan in 2017, the largest in state history at the time. The district found itself in a crisis following the discovery of widespread lead in drinking fountains, the sudden departure of the then superintendent, and a general loss of public confidence.
But the campaign — “I vote yes to get the lead out” — leaned towards these public issues. Wright’s insight is that public agencies need to tell their own stories, rather than relying solely on drained local media.
One compelling story that has been told in Portland in recent years is the city’s Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund, which was enacted in 2018. The idea has an obvious progressive appeal: tax megacorporations and use the money to help disadvantaged groups adjust to a hotter planet. But the simple story that initially appealed to voters has become more complicated.
Revenue has skyrocketed beyond expectations while grant making has lagged. As of July 1, the fund had raised $234 million, but total spending was less than $28 million according to current budget estimates. Worse, plans to spend millions on air conditioning were hastily rerouted thereafter Oregonians reported that the company the city wanted to work with was run by a woman with a history of fraud. (She’s now suing the program, arguing that her company should have gotten the work anyway.)
An audit by the city found that the fund “had not adopted a method of measuring, tracking and reporting performance — as required by law.” To complicate matters further, the newspaper later reported that the test was delayed by six months and rewritten after fund officials complained that it was “blatantly racist”. The Audit Draft’s recommendation to freeze grants until oversight is in place was removed, critical language was toned down, and the head of Portland’s Planning and Sustainability Office, which manages the fund, announced her resignation shortly thereafter.
Magan Reed, a spokesman for the fund, said establishing a complex first-in-the-nation program should not be rushed. “There’s no point in spending this money if it’s not done right,” she said. In July, city council members approved $111 million worth of projects, with grants going to nonprofits like the Community Cycling Center and Friends of Trees.
Hoarding hundreds of millions brings its own problems. “Money doesn’t sit around in governments and doesn’t attract attention…somebody’s going to want to spend it,” says Manson.
Such is the case with Metro’s homeless bond, which was approved in 2020. People for Portland, a well-funded new group backed by business and real estate interests and campaigning against public camping, proposed a voting measure to reprogram money for more shelter-heavy approaches to the homeless, though they barred them from voting on formalities became.
Metro has also been criticized for being slow to use a $475 million bond measure to fund “clean water, natural areas, park access and nature,” which passed 66.8 percent of the vote in 2019. Total spend through May was less than $25 million, according to communications director Neil Simon.
Meanwhile, those paying the new taxes have taken note with their own math on the back. Multnomah County’s Preschool for All program, which is expected to enroll 675 students this school year, is putting the biggest strain on high earners.
Ethan Chen, a digital marketer and entrepreneur, moved to downtown Portland from the Bay Area in 2019. After the pandemic struck, his wife felt unsafe downtown after dark. Two new taxes in 2020 on higher incomes also weighed on. Chen stressed that he’s “happy to pay taxes when they lead to something, just feel like the city’s solving the problems is trying to throw money at it, and it’s not really solving anything.”
Chen and his wife compared Beaverton and Vancouver to move, but Washington state’s lack of income tax made the choice easier. The income tax savings from moving out of Oregon “pays almost our entire mortgage each month. I moved and got a vacant house,” he says.